Fighting Junk Science: Eco-Experts Urged to Blog

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
April 20, 2006
The blog search engine Technorati lists nearly 36 million active blogs—and the number is growing at dizzying speed.

Blogs, short for Web logs, are online journals where readers can post comments and links to related material.

Now some scholars are proclaiming these rapidly rising media and information platforms as potentially potent tools for science.

"It would be great if top scientists who are experts in their field did contribute to the debates that are going on and put their ideas across," said Alison Ashlin, a doctoral candidate at the Oxford University Centre for the Environment in Great Britain.

Ashlin is an environmental scientist, and in the current issue of the journal Science she cites her own field as a prime example of the need for more accurate blogs fuelled by top researchers.

"Currently, there are roughly 400,000 weblogs featuring discussions on environmental and conservation-related issues, which makes it difficult to assess the general quality of scientific information on weblogs," she wrote in her paper.

Reliable Source?

For most people, blogging appeals because it is spontaneous and simple. Just about anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can create a blog or post comments on other bloggers' sites.

But the quick, easy, and often anonymous nature of blogs can create an enormous range in the quality and reliability of information presented.

For example, Ashlin and colleagues looked at predictions for global extinction rates as cited on 30 blogs.

Scientific consensus (though there is uncertainty) puts the maximum predicted rate between 74 and 150 species going extinct every day. (Read "Global Warming Could Cause Mass Extinctions by 2050, Study Says.")

But roughly 40 percent of the sites surveyed indicate that extinctions are happening at a rate of more than 200 species a day.

Ashlin stresses that if scientists don't take a more active role in the blogosphere, the public will have a much harder time finding accurate scientific information that can inform policy decisions.

"There is no [quality control] mechanism in place, and I'm not sure how you could implement one, because spontaneity is the whole appeal of blogs," she said.

Ray Pierrehumbert, a geophysicist at the University of Chicago, agrees.

"The Internet is a little like the library of Babel, in the story by Jorge Luis Borges," he said.

"That library contains not only everything that's true but everything that's false—so there's a lot of absolute junk information out on the Internet, and it's really critical for there to be some way for people to find out which sites are reliable."

Pierrehumbert believes that if more scientists produce better blogs, the online community will exercise its own quality control.

"The Net seems to have a kind of self-organizing peer review," he said. "The word gets around if blogs are full of junk, and then people stop looking at them."


Pierrehumbert is one of several colleagues who maintain a blog called RealClimate that focuses on global warming science (related game: grade your climate IQ).

"The impetus was just that there are a lot of junk science sites out there, but we didn't see a sort of centralized resource where people could go to get really credible scientific information on climate change written by scientists," he said.

"Other sites have good information, but may be run by organizations that have advocacy roles.

"Sometimes, unavoidably, we may slip into an advocacy role, but we consider our mandate to interpret the science. The focus is on accuracy … ."

Roger Pielke, Jr., is director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He heads Prometheus: The Science Policy Weblog.

Prometheus also relies on high-quality scientific contributions and delivers thought-provoking content, he says.

"We aspire to high standards, though in a blog you don't always reach them," Pielke said. "We remind people who post that [their writings] will be read by everyone, just like a peer-review paper would be."

Because Prometheus is a policy blog, he says, he tries to ensure accurate science is buttressed by a balanced viewpoint.

"Our site is focused on the interface of science and policy, so we try to have a diversity of views presented—though we don't always succeed," he said.

"We do a minimal amount of moderating the comments," he continued. "I'd say that we accept 99 percent of those offered. I think we have the highest-quality commentators and I really value them."

Boosting Scientific Thought

According to Pielke, the potential for anonymity in the blog environment has also provided some unlooked-for advantages.

"Some anonymous posters are quite aggressive in challenging us, and you get a sense of how your argument is being received in a way that you'd never get in a professional peer review," he said.

"People seem to be liberated to tell you what they really think—what someone might say in a hallway after you give a talk but never say [directly] to you. That can be very valuable."

Like nearly all scientific blogs, Pierrehumbert's RealClimate is meant for the public and the media—not for the research community.

But professionally oriented blogs could become useful tools for sharing and refining concepts among scientists, experts say.

"There probably is a need for a climate-science blog written for climate scientists," Pierrehumbert said.

In the meantime Oxford's Ashlin is optimistic about the future of scientific blogs.

"It would be great to see more reporting from conferences and fieldwork. This is a forum to discuss, disagree, debate, and finds ways of advancing science," she said.

"More informed opinion can only be a good thing for the blogging community."

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