Tag Archives: Social media

Its late and I’m rambling about Scienceblogs

I continue to have some discussions in comments of my Scienceblogs post that results in a treatise on my part. Greg Laden is the most recent victim of my verbosity – he has a great blog.

And, as with the previous reply to David Croty, I’ve decided to put it up as a post. Mainly because I wrote so much that it deserves more recognition with its own title, for instance. Plus it is very late and I do not feel like cutting it all down. I hope it looks okay in the morning.

So I make it a post. But it covers some more of my thoughts about the community that has been forming at Scienceblogs and where it will go from here.

First, Greg’s comment:

Just to expand on the point a little: For the most part, Scienceblogs has been explicitly non-communal. It is a network, there are communication channels (but not used by most bloggers) and things do get organized now and then (like a fundraising drive that about 20% of the blgogers engage in every year).

This is all very much on purpose. We blog as indy bloggers, and the ‘overlords’ (Seed’s Sb staff) organize all this internal network wide link love (reader’s picks, ed’s picks, most active, Page 3.14, the front page, 24 hour page, RSS feeds, etc.) and make links between things like NYT and NGS. But as bloggers, we’re just blogging away.

In once sense, I would say that PepsiBlawg Gate was an example of a “community” forming out of a thing that really wasn’t much of a community because most bloggers had fairly negative feelings about the blog so some degree of organization happened.

It would be interesting in the end to look at the kinds of things people do and their reaction to the Pepsiblog. There may be some stark (and thus perhaps not really that interesting in the end) patterns there. For the most part, labby research scientists did not quit, journalists and book writers did, for instance. Which brings up a point that Bora has almost talked me out of but not quite yet: Journalistic modus operendi, ethics, etc. are fundamentally different than for scientists. Not saying one is better than the other … just that they are fondling different parts of the elephant.

Which is a thought I’ll leave you with but I don’t recommend keeping in your head for too long.

My reply:

Even though my connection with the Scienceblog community was as a reader and sometimes commenter, as a scientist I feel confident that I can provide an opinion (My family knows that I have an opinion on everything so maybe that is a personal trait rather than a professional one. But ‘as a scientist’ sounds better than ‘as a know-it-all’). Confident mainly because I have been a part of several real-life enactments of just such a ‘community’ of researchers, connected by weak ties, who, through a precipitating event by ‘outsiders,’ came together to take some sort of action.

So, I think to a certain degree we may be arguing semantics about what really defines a community. In large measure, Scienceblogs is a network with mostly weak ties, but with some links perhaps a little stronger than others. And while there was not a decided push to create a defined community with uniform rules, titles and positions, when humans work along the same lines, doing similar things – even in digital space – connections get made and a sense of comity starts to emerge.

Thus insider slang terms like Sciblings, blogchild and Overlords developed. You would see memes and arguments sweep through certain blogs. There obviously were some strong connections that provided rapid information transfer between Sciblings.

There was an nascent community just waiting for an event that would precipitate action, making many weak ties much stronger, while breaking some altogether.

In the instances I have been involved in, a bunch of independent-minded, “leave me alone to do my work” researchers came together because a decision was made by upper management that directly affected the scientists – a decision that was never discussed with them until AFTER it was made. The scientists were left out of any input in the decision, even though it affected every single one of them.

In each case, there was a rapid meeting called by the researchers to discuss what they should do. Scientists who had never been in the same room with each other were now discussing the proper response with each other. Action had to be taken and committees were formed.

Instead of a bunch of weakly tied people, there were now a lot of very strongly defined paths for communication.

Perhaps this is only an aspect of egomaniac researchers, who think they have to be informed beforehand about anything and have a part of every decision. I do not think so. I think it can happen with any community when the weak ties that are present are tugged by an outside “threat.”

Heck, I’ve seen it happen in neighborhoods when a new development appears on the city plans.

What I think happened with the PepsiBlawg Gate was a crystallization of a large fragment of the network because, to some, it became obvious that the reasons they had joined and maintained even weak ties in the network /community were in conflict with what the ‘Overlords’ wanted to do. The lack of communication, and the ‘disrespect’ that engendered, meant some sort of response was needed.

And I’ve been fascinated by that response, because it has taken many forms. Some people exited without any need for real consultation. Some did not begin to really think about it until others in the network/community that they respected made a decision – Bora being the strongest example. Still others, such as PZ, decided to take direct action and go on strike unless the ‘Overlords’ listened to them.

These are all ways one would expect different people in a community to respond to change. It is what I spend my days examining at SpreadingScience.

I do not think Scienceblogs will vanish. It’ll be different. I think there will be much more defined communication between members, with regular meetings between the bloggers and the people from Seed Media. Instead of an ad hoc sort of network/community, it may very well become a much more defined one. Like the taming of the Old West, it may be more or less attractive, depending on the outlook of the individual. The bloggers who left may very well continue to link and discuss things written on Scienceblogs. The reverse will also happen.

In effect, there will be a much wider network/community with some very strong, defined ties that were not present before. I expect other types of science blogging sites to become important – such as Science 2.0 and others. It’ll be great for most of the bloggers and their readers. It may just not be quite as optimal for Seed as it had been before when they virtually had cornered the market.

And that was kind of my point in the post. If Seed had been a little better about servicing its bloggers, it would have kept the market pretty much to itself. Now, not so much. Meaning that, as far as it might be concerned, there is a loss in value that might take some effort to recreate. Effort that it would not have needed if it had not ticked people off.

Finally, I think that the different viewpoints between scientific journalists and journalistic scientists makes for a much better description of the elephant than either alone. In any effective network/community, diversity of world views is a key part. It is very hard to solve complex problems over and over if everyone thinks the same way. It is the friction that arises from the different views that eventually allows us to make the wise decision.

Companies as complex systems

networkby jurvetson

Seeing Your Company as a System
[Via Ackoff Center Weblog]

Much-needed guidance on making companies more employee-centered, adaptive, and capable This is an article from Strategy+Business by Andrea Gabor: … No matter how disparate the causes of failure, there is always a common thread: somewhere, somehow, management has let its attention slip…


Many of the failures we have seen over the last few years – the financial industry, the housing industry, the oil industry – have arisen because the organization involved are being run like a ‘machine’ – push lever X to get result Y. A better approach in these complex setting is to view the organization as a living organism – where small changes in initial conditions, coupled with network effects, can result in disparate, somewhat stochastic, outcomes.

We have done a great job over the last century solving the problems that could be attacked with a ‘machine-based’ management approach. What we have left are the really complex problems where a wide variety of levers can be manipulated with often unexpected outcomes.

Few problems involving complex processes can be solved by moving a single lever. One point of attack will not provide a solution. In fact it often create problems elsewhere in the process.

Today’s complex world requires a different approach, one that overcomes the faults of the ‘machine-driven’ management approaches. This article serves as a nice introduction to the works of Russell Ackoff and others that describe a systems-based approach to management.

Key to this approach is a view of employees that seems to be anathema to many:

All the works mentioned in this guide have been linked to higher performance. Yet their focus on the expertise of ordinary employees remains a hard sell in many companies, because it requires an enormous long-term commitment to training and to local control and knowledge sharing.

Moreover, employee-centered systems organizations need to develop trust — between supervisors and employees and among employees who have to work together to understand and improve the system. Making this work takes skillful management. Indeed, many quality improvement efforts in the U.S. failed because they absorbed rigid process guidelines but failed to build in flexibility.

Management approaches utilizing complex systems thinking require a relationship with employees, especially those most directly engaged with complex problems, that few companies seem to be able to foment. Yet those organizations that can accomplish this will be able to successfully deal with much more complex problems than those that can not, producing an advantage that will be hard for ‘machine-based’ thinking to overcome.

Part of what SpreadingScience tries to do is educate organizations about human social networks, helping them understand how to leverage new technologies to identify and empower the people they need in order to solve complex problems. We help them understand how to adapt their tools to make it easier to support a network-driven management style, and allowing the organization to solve a greater range of complex problems.

The companies that can accomplish this will have a selective advantage over those who can not.

How an efficient company makes a ton of money

efficient by NeoGaboX

Apple’s Incredibly Efficient Growth
[Via Daring Fireball]

Steve Cheney analyzes Apple’s R&D expenditures and acquisition pace:

Organic growth is the term coined for growing internally, not via merger or acquisition. Apple has embraced this strategy over its existence, averaging only about 1 acquisition per year during the past 25 years. In contrast — during the past four years alone — Microsoft bought 45 companies, Google 40, and Cisco 30.

Microsoft spent seven times as much as Apple on R&D over the past four years.


I saw this while working at Immunex – a well-designed and well-run company with a culture of innovation can beat larger, more well-funded companies every time.

Big Phama outspent us by a huge amount, and had many more people working on the same projects, yet we continued to get things done before them. Same with Apple.

It is possible to grow quite large and still maintain this culture. It helps tremendously if the guys at the top are not sales or marketing types, who generally seem to have no clue about rapid innovation and efficient management design.

Buying companies sucks away energy that could have been more efficiently used. It seems that MBAs think the mergers and acquisitions are the way to grow. Immunex did not think so and neither does Apple.

Why science communication often fails

science by o palsson

A great paradox of the current world:

Researchers are probably uniquely qualified to present the facts about much of the complexity we are dealing with, allowing us to make rational decisions about the problems facing us. But their training also makes them uniquely UNABLE to provide the stories that people will actually listen to.

My words about the problem.The same rules of thumb that create great science produces scientists that have a hard time connecting with the rules of thumb used by most others. Their heuristics do not overlap enough.

There was a wonderful conjunction of several online posts I read today that helps illustrate this. The first was this one:

Is Our Scientists Learning?
[Via The Intersection]

In my talks, I often discuss the different groups who came to meet with me when I worked on Capitol Hill with regard to who was most effective. On science related issues, the general breakdown fell into two categories (with exceptions):

  1. Scientists from universities or NGO’s would usually show up in my office with a briefing binder as thick as a phone book. There would be a lot of charts, p-values, figures, and complicated concepts. Most didn’t talk to me, but at me. And the take home message would be different than that of the other scientists I met the previous hour on the same subject.
  2. Special interest groups were frequently very well organized. They spoke with a common theme and brought articulate speakers. Rather than stop in our office, they usually hosted large and well attended briefings, supplying easy to digest hardcover books with titles like ‘climate change conspiracy.’ Typically they were funny and made references to Michael Crichton’s science fiction. Perhaps most importantly, they provided a free boxed lunches and held long Q&As to engage the audience.

Both types introduced themselves as the “honest broker” of scientific information, but the latter often made the stronger impression with staffers.


So we have a whole post discussing how sucky scientists are because they present facts and not lunches, they show figures instead smoozing, they have charts instead of playing to the egos of policy makers.

As a researcher, it was a little upsetting to read something like this, that facts are not what are important. In fact, the truth may be the least important thing. Others felt the same way:

Once Again, Professional Science Communicators Blame the Victim
[Via Mike the Mad Biologist]

Since I’ve raised this issue before, and it doesn’t seem to have taken, the gloves are coming off.

Once again, we see the sorry spectacle of blaming scientists for policy failures–all scientists, not a subset (consider this foreshadowing). As always the ‘scientists’ are described as bookish nerds who bore policy makers and reporters with p-values.

This is as stupid as blaming a working ob/gyn for the lobbying failures of NARAL.


This pretty much shows the scientist’s viewpoint. We deal in facts. That is how we’re trained, how we talk and how we expect others to respond. It is really hard to understand that most people are not convinced by facts. In contrast to researchers, they are convinced by stories and by narratives.

An article I ran across drove this point home:

BBC News – Why do people vote against their own interests?

[Via BBC ]

Last year, in a series of “town-hall meetings” across the country, Americans got the chance to debate President Obama’s proposed healthcare reforms.

What happened was an explosion of rage and barely suppressed violence.

Polling evidence suggests that the numbers who think the reforms go too far are nearly matched by those who think they do not go far enough.

But it is striking that the people who most dislike the whole idea of healthcare reform – the ones who think it is socialist, godless, a step on the road to a police state – are often the ones it seems designed to help.


This article explored why people were so against things that actually would help them. And it suggests that stories are what count, not facts:

For Mr Westen, stories always trump statistics, which means the politician with the best stories is going to win: “One of the fallacies that politicians often have on the Left is that things are obvious, when they are not obvious.


As Mr Frank sees it, authenticity has replaced economics as the driving force of modern politics. The authentic politicians are the ones who sound like they are speaking from the gut, not the cerebral cortex.

In a very complex world, people do not have the time to fully understand the many aspects of this complexity. They have to use their own heuristics to try and reach a decision. These rules of thumb are very seldom based purely on facts unless those are what one has been trained to use.

I’ve written about the need for a story, the need to create narratives, in order to effect change.

Scientists have had a lot of hard training to provide them with tools and approaches to make decisions based on facts. Most people have not. They respond to stories and narratives that resonate with their personal heuristics.

So, researchers present the facts, show charts and expect people to reach the same logical conclusions they did. But most people react to stories that make these complex facts understandable.

But to scientists, those stories are poor substitutes for the truth. And they may be poor substitutes but that is often irrelevant to the discussion.

It does not matter whether a scientist is able to convince someone to adopt a policy because of the facts or because of a nice lunch. What matters is the convincing.

Of course, that is an anathema to many researchers. If facts do not work, nothing will.

So, the conflict.

I agree with Mike that this is not something most scientists can deal with. It goes against their own heuristics.

But there has to be a way to identify people who can present a truthful scientific narrative that will help policy makers decide on the reality-based solution. Otherwise, the group with the best lunch – and most money – will drive the decisions.

Getting news in the mobile connected world

So, I’m driving to the nearby Barnes and Noble to use their Wifi and get some work done. Plus I get a discount on their coffee. I get a voicemail on my iPhone from my Mom saying she hopes I’m not in downtown Seattle, that it looks like a real mess.

Not having a clue to what she was talking about, I checked Google News. I found a couple of articles like this one, about a man wandering around near the Courthouse with some sort of device on his arm. The police has him in custody and were examining the device.

Then I ran across this article which quoted a Police tweet about the incident:

In a tweet, Seattle police said, “Adult male in 300 block of James has made general threats against persons and property. He has taped an unknown device to his left hand.”

Whoa. I had not thought about that at all. You can follow the whole incident on their Twitter page! Here is a picture of the description so far:

seattle pd twitter

Jeez. They have a picture of the device online already! Who would have really thought 5 years ago that information about something like this could not only be readily available but that organizations, such as the police, would be on the front lines of providing it. we no longer need to wait for the evening newscast or the paper the next day to get informed.

And as I finish this, the Twitter feed states that the downtown streets have been reopened.

Updated: Short answers to simple questions

fail by Nima Badiey

NIH Funds a Social Network for Scientists — Is It Likely to Succeed?

[Via The Scholarly Kitchen]

The NIH spends $12.2 million funding a social network for scientists. Is this any more likely to succeed than all the other recent failures?


Fuller discussion:

In order to find an approach that works, researchers often have to fail a lot. That is a good thing. The faster we fail, the faster we find what works. So I am glad the NIH is funding this. While it may have little to be excited about right now, it may get us to a tool that will be useful.

As David mentions, the people quoted in the article seem to have an unusual idea of how researchers find collaborators.

A careful review of the literature to find a collaborator who has a history of publishing quality results in a field is “haphazard”, whereas placing a want-ad, or collaborating with one’s online chat buddies, is systematic? Yikes.

We have PubMed, which allows us to rapidly identify others working on research areas important to us. In many cases, we can go to RePORT to find out what government grants they are receiving.

The NIH site, as described, also fails to recognize that researchers will only do this if it helps their workflow or provides them a tool that they have no other way to use. Facebook is really a place for people to make online connections with others, people one would have no other way to actually find.

But we can already find many of the people we would need to connect to. What will a scientific Facebook have that would make it worthwhile?

Most social networking tools initially provide something of great usefulness to the individual. Bookmarking services, like CiteULike, allow you to access/sync your references from any computer. Once someone begins using it for this purpose, the added uses from social networking (such as finding other sites using the bookmarks of others) becomes apparent.

For researchers to use such an online resource, it has to provide them new tools. Approaches, like the ones being used by Mendeley or Connotea, make managing references and papers easier. Dealing with papers and references can be a little tricky, making a good reference manager very useful.

Now, I use a specific application to accomplish this, which allows me to also insert references into papers, as well as keep track of new papers that are published. Having something similar online, allowing me access from any computer, might be useful, especially if it allowed access from anywhere, such as my iPhone while at a conference.

If enough people were using such an online application then there could be added Web 2.0 approaches that could then be used to enhance the tools. Perhaps this would supercharge the careful reviews that David mentions, allowing us to find things or people that we could not do otherwise.

There are still a lot of caveats in there, because I am not really convinced yet that having all my references online really helps me. So the Web 2.0 aspects do not really matter much.

People may have altruistic urges, the need to help the group. But researchers do not take up these tools because they want to help the scientific community. They take them up because they help the researcher get work done.

Nothing mentioned about the NIH site indicates that it has anything that I currently lack.

Show me how an online social networking tool will get my work done faster/better, in ways that I can not accomplish now. Those will be the sites that succeed.

[UPDATE: Here is post with more detail on the possibilities.]