a small tribute to scientific blogging and an introduction

I remember when I discovered the wonderful world of scientific blogging. I do not remember exactly how I stumbled upon the first post, but I perfectly remember the excitement. I was in my second year of Master in France, already fully aware of the benefits of the internet for academic purposes: keywords alerts, table of contents alerts, etc, the knowledge was right here, at the tip of my fingers. And this, for a nerd like me, was already a massive enjoyment.  You need to understand, I am French, in terms of technology and moreover in terms of academic development, we are always a step behind (the step may be smaller and smaller, but it is still there, and actually this blog is going to bounce on this gap). But the whole scientific blogging thing, that has really been a revolution to me. Publisher alerts feed you only of things in your very narrow field, if you set them up otherwise, you are going to drown yourself in a sea of emails. And you screen them yourself to decide what is interesting, or not. Scientific blogs who do proper blogging about peer-reviewed research give you the key to understand research which is a bit (or a lot, why not?) out of your own way. And they also kind of indicate a trend, signalling what others found interesting when screening their publisher alerts, and if a lot of people found a same paper to be of interest. Or controversial. They don’t replace your screening, because no one knows better than you what could feed your thinking, but they complement it. You’ll tell me, blogging about peer-reviewed research, that’s just putting journal clubs on the internet. But the sad truth is that us French researchers, we don’t do journal clubs. I am not kidding: the only time I heard some kind of journal club had happened in my former research group, it was thanks to my M.Sc. supervisor (the lovely Gaëlle Villejoubert) who, academically speaking, is as French as I am (i.e.  received her graduate training from a British university). So maybe the thrill I had when discovering scientific blogging was partly due to me discovering the greatness of presenting someone else’s research and discussing it. Still, it was thrilling.

So two years and a half ago, I started to follow a few (understatement for “a lot and religiously”) blogs. Thanks geeks of the world for the invention of the RSS feed and the RSS reader. This was the golden time when Dave Munger was feeding us daily (archives still here, at Cognitive Daily). Not that Dave has stopped giving us interesting food for thought, but as a cognitive psychologist, that was a perfect fit for me. Ed Yong was already in the picture too, and then the one who was broadening the most my horizon. As for Of two minds, they were kindly adding the salt of humour to my then starting academic life. When I moved to the UK, around six months later, I entered this fantastic world where journal clubs happened several times a week (in big departments). My research group had already one going on, and willing to bring my own touch, I proposed that our weekly meetings feed the flow of a scientific blog. It never took off. Put this on me not setting the example by publishing my first contribution to the journal club, too busy procrastinating and pretending I was over-busy. The truth is that, full of my very developed impostor syndrome, I was afraid to be lame.

During the second year of my PhD I had also watched myself taking less and less time to check scientific blogs. Yeah, at some point PhD students really start being busy. But after the summer, I attacked my third year with a typical “Oh crap! What am I going to do in a year from now?” scare, and I found myself looking for more procrastination tools. So I started using properly Twitter, mostly to be able to follow my favourite bloggers and Arts institutions / companies. Twitter is nicely perverse. When you are visiting a blog it is pretty easy to ignore the blogroll because unlike Twitter, it is not suggesting that you follow this one or that one based on what you favourite and publish. Very quickly I was following people whose focus is more on Science communication by itself and got interested. Maybe this made me pay more attention to the quality of science-related papers I have read from then. Or maybe my developing researcher self is becoming everyday more demanding and critical. Or more likely, the combination of the two is what made me having new urges of starting a scientific blog. Since September, I have been enraged by mainstream papers pretending to do scientific journalism far too many times. It is not just me projecting some kind of personal frustration. For myself I don’t know if English-speaking scientific journalism is having a crisis or if it has always been problematic, but there is a very palpable trend, this autumn, of scientists (in the broad meaning) losing patience with it. The nature of the crisis is wonderfully and hilariously summarized here by Martin Robbins, and the amplitude of the reactions are gauging the trend (more than 4 000 tweets and almost 700 comments!).

In the past I also had been, rarely but still, frustrated not to find blogs to comment a particular paper I was thinking worthy a post. Hence there was definitely some need for myself to start a scientific blog. I needed to shout to the world when science reporting was wrong and I needed to take responsibility of my own commenting desires. But to fulfil as well needs of others and guarantee myself a potential audience, I needed to find my own niche. So I thought the safest would be to start a French scientific blog: try a search for French blogs doing proper blogging about peer-reviewed research and you will quickly see it is a niche. If you go on Research Blogging, there is no French language option. That says it all. We have some sites doing science journalism, but there are certainly not too many. Let alone considering Psychology results and therefore placing Psychology as a Science. I think you can say there is only C@fé des sciences. This other one looked interesting in the first place, but they actually just “translate” papers without citing their source (here for example, exact translation of this; they did not even bothered changing the illustration). In my world it is called plagiarism. I think finding it was actually the moment when I snapped and stop hesitating to enter the game.

You need to understand that we French people we are not really good with science communication. We are excellent in “pop philosophy”, pretty much every day you can hear a philosopher on French TV or radio. Children have dedicated philosophy book series. And philosophy is a mandatory subject in our Baccalaureate, whether you’re having it in literature or in sciences. We are abstract thinkers, modelled since nursery school to reflect on life. Plus doing pop science would involve explaining to people that sometimes every case in a species is showing the same behaviour. In my nation of individualists, this is unbearable to hear. Especially in my field where the observed behaviours are those of human beings. We can admit that animals are predictable, ourselves not so much. I attribute to our strong individualism the fact that psychoanalysis is so much popular in France and influencing our archetype of the therapeutic relationship.

Maybe we are so bad at communicating about science also because of our secularism. There is no place for scepticism movements in France. There is no place for them because there is no need. Everybody admits evolution for example. Not that everybody understands it, most of us actually don’t get the logical consequences of admitting evolution. Most of us for example don’t realize that admitting evolution is admitting that we are that predictable because evolution underlies a lot of our behaviours. Admitting evolution is in contradiction with our individualist mind. That’s just another French paradox. We have many anyway, so one more or one less doesn’t really matter. And I doubt anybody can brag coming from a culture exempt of paradoxes, and being exempt of them as individual.

Blablabla… point was if there is no need for scepticism, there is no need to explain the scientific method and what makes good science. Therefore (and/or maybe for other reasons), we are terribly bad at communicating about science, in which we anyway generally don’t include Psychology. I checked, we have a few degrees in science communication, what those people become is a mystery because I don’t see any effects of this in French media. Maybe it is too early. So I am going to take the opportunity and try to do some blogging about peer-reviewed research in French. That will obviously be also the opportunity for me to place Psychology in the scientific mental world of French people. Massive ambition, I know. Since I work in English I am actually going to do it the wrong way, posting first in english and then in French. Research-related speaking is just not natural anymore for me in French. This mean I will have to try to do this crazy thing of maintaining the blog in a bilingual state. Although, I am lazy PhD student (oxymoron, I know) so I will start badly by not translating this introduction in French, at least right now.

And yes, I can hear those of you who know me, thinking: “She already has two blogs, this is insane”. Well it is a bit. But it is all related. What I hope to do is actually to comment papers that target questions raised in my life as an expat’ and my life as a bilingual and mother of a bilingual child. The exact same lives covered by the two other blogs. Exceptions will occur, obviously, mainly because the “navelist” motivation works also the other way round. Sometimes, instead of introspection prompting a literature search, a serendipitous literature finding speaks to my own experience, generally against. And it happens that researchers are just human beings too, therefore prone to the confirmation bias. It’s generally OK because we are reasonable enough to admit when the study is perfectly fine. But what do you want? We are empiricist, we need to see data before doing / thinking anything. What I won’t blog about is my own topic of research. Because you don’t want to hear about verbal probabilities, only 5 to 10 people in the world do. And more seriously because I review papers on verbal probabilities for my own PhD, so that would be boring to blog about them, easy-lazy and not challenging at all. And I love challenge.