Today marks a big occasion for the Scientific American blog network: the launch of the MIND blogs, the Scientific American MIND blog network. Six new blogs, six new areas of exploration for the human mind--and a transition of all existing psychology-related blogs (like this one) to the new platform. (Basically, that means we get a cool little flag next to our blog name. Nothing else changes, really.) I'd like to add my voice to the welcomes that others have already posted this afternoon. And I'd like, as well, to take a moment to reflect on why this launch comes at a particularly good time.
A new paper has, in the last few days, garnered the ire of some of our most prominent science bloggers - with good reason. It contends that blogs are "bereft of the kind of complexity and nuance possible only in long-form journalism"--and launches that accusation directly in the face of those bloggers who dare to write about that most complex of all complex topics, neuroscience.
I won't get into it here. Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, our own Bora Zivkovic, and a host of others have already had an extended discussion (worth reading) on everything that's wrong with the paper, the analysis, the assumptions, the conclusions, the...basically, the everything. Instead, let me say this. Bloggers are uniquely well-suited to explore just those complexities and nuances that we're accused of skimming over. To wit:
- We write our own headlines. No one is allowed to change the title of article piece to "The Brain on Blogging," no matter how many more clicks that headline would get. Were I to write this piece for a traditional outlet, no such luck. (Usually. But please caveat all of these with 'usually.' Just as I don't want anyone, ever to generalize about bloggers, so I don't want to generalize about non-bloggers--especially since so many of us, myself included, write regularly for all types of media). Traditional headlines have to conform to a certain tone and form. They sometimes mislead. They sometimes overstate and over-promise. And while it may seem a minor, almost nitpicky point to say that we have headline control, it isn't. Headlines are the first thing someone sees in a piece. As many a study tells us, primacy matters. That first impression will very likely color the rest of the article. Hell, I may not even read the rest of the article and instead start commenting away based on those few words alone. You can't understate the value of a headline. And while it's absolutely true that a good editor does his very best to create headlines that both grab the eye and deliver the message, neuroscience is especially likely to see a "This is your brain on..." header that makes many a scientist and writer grab their head from the get-go. As bloggers, we determine our own first impression. And in so doing, we can often capture nuance that would be cut from a print outlet because it doesn't quite fit.
- We have no length constraints. Some of my blog posts are three, four, five thousand words long. Because I decided they had to be. I started writing, became more and more engrossed, and wanted to fit in more and more information. So, I did just that. If I were writing for a more traditional outlet, I'd have had to cut any given piece to whatever my word limit; no ifs, ands, or buts. 800? 1200? Even 2,500? If that's the space you have, that's all you get. There is clear value to that model: it forces you to be concise, to get to the main point, to be clear. But it also forces you to cut nuance, to simplify complexity, to make difficult choices about what to include and what to omit. We make those choices in blogging, too, but we have far more flexibility. Want to explore something in greater depth? Write a follow-up blog post. Want to clarify a point of neuroscience that you didn't get quite right--or didn't realize was now outdated? Again, feel free. Our flexibility is our ally and enables us to report out elements of a story that we wouldn't otherwise touch - or that may be too short or tangential to fit into a traditional piece (in that case, we write another, short and tangential post along with the original).
- We aren't under deadline pressure. Usually. We can write about what we want, when we want, at the speed we want. We can wait for sources to get back to us. We can take our time. And we don't always have to be news-worthy. We just have to write in a way that's interesting and engaging.
- We don't have to be professional writers. Yes, this is true of print journalism as well, but (for all of the above reasons) to a lesser extent. Bloggers are often...scientists! Neuroscientists! Imagine that. A neuroscientist writing about neuroscience. How...un-nuanced and uncomplicated. Check out the new roster of SciAm MIND bloggers: Jamil Zaki and Adam Waytz, the first an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford, and the second, an assistant professor of management at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management; Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik, neuroscientists and lab directors at the Barrow Neurological Institute; Scott Barry Kaufman, an adjunct professor of psychology at NYU; Felicity Muth, a researcher at the University of Arizona, with a PhD in animal cognition; and Melanie Tannenbaum, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Not too shabby when it comes to credentials. And while I am the absolutely last person to argue that you need a PhD to write well about any area of science--you do not need one, you absolutely don't, not at all, but I won't get started on this topic or I'll never finish--it's tough to argue that professional psychologists lack the background to write about psychology.
That list is just a start. And I wasn't even planning on writing it. I just decided it needed writing. And so I wrote it. Because this is a blog, and so I can.
And with that, welcome, new MIND bloggers! We couldn't be happier to have you--and you couldn't be joining at a more relevant time.