Saturday, June 2, 2007

The Practice of Blogging versus Scientific Review

In my musings, I have talked already extensively about how our sense of identity is shifting. We see ourselves increasingly as focussed in the now instead of defined by our history, we see ourselves as multiple and inconsistent and less as simple and uniform, and we organize ourselves and our lives less as centres and more as members of the periphery.

Blogging is, of course, one of the ways this shift manifests itself. As a blogger, I contribute to a movement of bloggers, what I have to say is no more or no less important that what anyone else has to say. I am not central, and certainly not centrally important. Rather I am important because what I say improves the value of the periphery, of the ever growing margins of our world.

In the scientific community, the sense of contributing to a collective effort has existed for some time, but it is mixed up with the idea that one must be defined by history. In the world of science, what I write about must be "built on the shoulders of giants", the ones who preceded me. When I submit a paper or an article, it is expected of me that I should cite (identify) all relevant thinkers and their works, all "centrally important" previous contributions, before I can be expected to talk about my own insights. It is a question of "not reinventing the wheel" and "acknowledging the work of my predecessors".

In the blog world, however, this would be impossible. With over 70 million blogs, still growing at an exponential rate, there is no possible way that I could identity and acknowledge all relevant material. Indeed, it is not expected of me. Instead, the blog world operates not by the acknowledgement of indiviudals, but by the acknowledgement of the collective. If a large enough number of people acknowledge the material I write, then it is considered "important". This is a form of acknowledgement based on periphery rather than centre. In the blog world, I cite material I have encountered that I believe is relevant, with no expectation that this is in any way complete.

While in the world of science, this is considered "wrong", in the world of multidisciplinary science, this is increasingly the level of possible practice. As long as one contributed to a limited disciplinary range, one could reasonably expect, with considerable effort, to read and know the relevant literature of earlier thinkers and to be able to cite them as appropriate. But the more one's contributions broaden in a multidisciplinary context, the less this is true. I have long felt as a scientist with a very broad multidisciplinary focus, that I can never master the references of each discipline in which I operate, I give up the effort from the get-go. I rely on colleagues to tell me what they might be, and I "suffer the slings and arrows" that scientists fling my way when I don't get the references right.

The blog way is the way of the future, the way of "collective thought" rather than the individual thoughts of an elite. There is no reason why science, science writing and scientific review cannot be organized in ways closer to the ways of blogging than to the current practice. Science will have to give up a certain number of assumptions and values, however, to do this. Such as that the scientist owns more "truth" than the broader population. Science needs to review its own needs for rigour and scholarship in relation to a different way of promoting "good thinking", "critical thinking", etc. Although the blog way allows a lot of strange stuff a "fleeting success", much sound thinking also rises to the top... and scientific review also allows a lot of stange stuff its heyday. They constitute dramatically different ways of organizing thought collectively, but both are effective. The blog way, however, is aligned with the emerging understanding of the self, whereas the scientific process is still rooted in an older vision of who we are. As such, it will have to change, like-it-or-not.

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