The Blob versus the blog: arguing how social media is changing science

The BlobA stodgy old scientist once said to me that he was skeptical of scientific social media with its “twitting and the blobs”

…..uh, you mean blogs?

But maybe he wasn’t so off track in what he said, talking about a blog as “The blob”, reflecting his thinking of blogs as akin to monsters.

Is blogging a positive or a negative for science….or somewhere in between?

Why do some powerful scientists seem to downright hate social media such as blogging?

Science has changed even if many scientists haven’t and one big change is the increasing power of social media, especially blogging.

Many scientists these days, especially younger ones, regularly in some way engage in social media. Perhaps more read social media such as Twitter and blogs than the number who actively use social media to write themselves.

Nonetheless social media has rapidly taken on a powerful role in science.

What is the impact of blogging? Good or evil?

It is in fact somewhat of a mixed bag and not so easily characterized in black and white terms, but overall I believe that blogging is now an essential part of science and on the whole it is a good thing.


There are a number of notable reasons.

First, when blogging, scientists tend to be far more open and frank about issues than they would dare to in actual publications such as opinion pieces. I think such openness is good for science and brings to light key challenges. Sometimes such frankness can have risk such as hurting someone’s feelings or upsetting people, but on whole I believe it does more good than harm.

Second, blogging is far faster and more efficient than traditional publication modes. In fact, blogging is literally 1 million times faster as a means of communication than communicating via a paper.

Of course faster is not always better, but there are many issues in science for which more speed is in fact better.

A prime example in the stem cell field is the issue of dealing with dubious clinics that have the potential to harm or literally even kill patients. This is not an exaggeration as in fact a number of patients including children have already been killed by such treatments around the world and even right here in the U.S. in the last few years.

It pisses me off that the people running these clinics and putting patients at risk are doing so supposedly in the name of science and in my field.

For such a life or death issue we do not have time to stodgily communicate via journals about potential solutions over a period of years.

We need action now.

I myself have chosen to take an active role as a leader in confronting dubious clinics via this blog and challenging those in the for-profit stem cell clinic area to improve their practices. I’ve been threatened with litigation and I’ve been the subject of verbal personal attacks. But I think I’ve made a real difference so to me it is worth it.

I’m not complaining because I believe it is worth it to take these risks in trying to literally save people’s lives and in some cases their life savings. I’m willing to put my weight and credibility as a scientist behind these efforts.

My main point of this line of discussion is that I can’t think of how I could have made a difference in the area of dubious stem cell treatments without this blog. It’s become a powerful tool for good and I take that very seriously.

More broadly I also discuss on my blog key issues in science that are important but are rarely discussed because they are awkward issues or taboo areas. Mainstream journals are frankly too wimpy to ever allow discussions of such touchy issues, but such issues do indeed need to be talked about.

A significant number of scientists including many in power view blogging very negatively, even as some kind of monster that eats up time and opens cans of worms and challenges the status quo. This view only serves to isolate such scientists and ultimately reduce their influence over time.

Looking to the future, I believe that blogging and other forms of social media will continue to have increased influence on science.

There will be some good and some bad outcomes from this trend, but it is a tidal change that no one can stop. Let’s make it, as it evolves, as positive as we can in terms of its influence on science and scientists. Think of it as an experiment in progress in which we all play a role.