Why is there no neuroscience blogosphere? (Updated)

aka Why does the neuroscience blogosphere suck?

Obviously, there are tons of great neuroscience blogs out there – I’m not even going to try to list them because they are numerous and I don’t want to accidentally leave one out. But there does not seem to be a blogosphere. To get all middle school on you, Wikipedia defines the blogosphere as the collection of all blogs and their interconnections, implying that they exist as a connected community.

When I look around at the Economics blogosphere, I see a lot of give-and-take between blogs. One blog will post an idea, another blog will comment on it, and the collective community has a discussion. I see this discussion, to a greater or lesser extent, in the other communities I follow: math, physics, and ecology. Yet missing in all this is neuroscience, and perhaps biology in general. Why is this?

The online academic biology community seems primarily interested in discussing the disastrous state of the profession. This set of problems – the lack of funding, the overabundance of PhDs, etc – has a clearly connected blogosphere. There’s lots of discussion.

Are biologists just less interested in discussing broad ideas? I wouldn’t think so, but I don’t see any equivalent to, say, Dynamic Ecology, where discussions on neuroscience ideas big and small can kick off. I think the closest we get is the Neuroskeptic/critic axis.

Am I missing something? Is there a place that big ideas in neuroscience get debated on blogs? Is there a scientific give and take that I’m missing? Is neuroscience too diverse, or too data oriented?

Update: Okay, I’ve been thinking about this and there have been some really great comments. I think I’m won over by one on G+ and Artem’s below. I think there are x key factors:

(1) Too much science communication, not enough science debate. People in the biology blogs seem to want to be science communicators! It’s much easier to do this in a popular field like neuroscience than, say, math. And these bloggers who attempt communication get much more positive feedback than the bloggers who attempt to communicate with the tiny neuroscience blogosphere. I know that my post on Einstein’s brain got orders of magnitude more views than my post on Tony Movshon explaining V2.

(2) Few blogs are focused on individual research themes. It often seems that the most successful blogs devoted to a more academic audience are those with clear research themes (aka, find your niche). But we have almost none of these in neuroscience! I think a lot of this follows from (1). We have blogs like labrigger and Memming, but where are the rest? Visual neuroscience often seems to take up half of the SfN space, but where are the vision blogs?

(3) The blogging community is not used to it. Maybe part of it is that we’re more used to the passive meeting presentation format than the more useful symposia (debate) format, but I think the biology community is not used to this kind of debate over ideas and that uncomfortability has carried over into the blogs. I know when I started taking snips from other blogs and commenting on it I felt…uncomfortable, but it’s something I see all the time in economics/etc.

(4) Data is hard. Let’s just admit to ourselves that biology is more data focused than, say, economics. Economics is very easy to have a semi-informed opinion on than biology.


22 thoughts on “Why is there no neuroscience blogosphere? (Updated)

  1. I’d go with diverse (and sparse representation within each subfield). For instance, while a part of me would love weighing in authoritatively on every neuro subject, I know that I truly don’t know shit about most of them and only know a little bit about what I do know about.

    • I think that’s a big part of it. I often try to comment on posts about general neuroscience-y things but often I just don’t know enough to say anything interesting. But I think that we’re still missing something – we can’t comment too much on these posts because they’re presenting very specific knowledge. Surely there should be bigger, broader ideas hidden inside the posts that we can have opinions about? Or even specific posts dedicated to ideas rather than data?

  2. We have blogged hundreds of posts and run 2 Linked In groups as well as local, Chicago Meet-Ups, etc. We are also pro communicators and marketers. Our experiences:
    – Americans HATE real science – because it challenges power/livelihood ideologies
    – Neuroscience will never be for a general audience – it is too technically complex, e.g., you really need to know what DA is, etc.
    – Repeat of 1st point, neuroscience debunks pretty much every popular belief and ideology

    Pop science and esp brain science is an oxymoron, in the US. We don’t try any more. The Brits and EU are a bit better. Even professional audiences are going to remain ignorant – they like silly things like Behavioral econ, cognitive psych, pop psychology, etc.

    • I understand why the general population may not be interested in the details, but there are tons of professional neuroscientists out there – 30,000 show up at SfN every year, and that’s just a fraction of the whole. Why isn’t there a professional blogosphere debating ideas?

      Maybe this is the (or, a) problem: neuroscience blogs are focused on science communication to a broader audience, rather than communicating with other scientists?

      • I think you hit the nail on the head right there. There is too much popular interest in brain-stuff, and so most neuroscientists that enter blogging, get most of their early traffic and feedback from the lay audience and end up going down the outreach road. However, no person that can write authoritatively about neuroscience is that interested in spending time reading other popular treatments of neuro, they simply don’t get anything really new out of it (except maybe learning some tricks on how to popularize things). I think this low ratio of contributing experts to lay-consumption is also why potentially great projects like the Cognitive Sciences StackExchange (which is unfortunately named, since neuro is completely on topic there and a pretty big tag) have failed at providing a useful tool for students and researchers (unlike MathOverflow and cstheory that have become amazingly useful research tools in their fields).

        The second (and probably also more long term) issue I see is neuro and biology’s lack of receptiveness to open exchange of ideas. Math, physics, computer science, and econ all have a rich heritage of open discussion through preprints and working papers, so it is not a big surprise that some of that discussion moved over to the blogs. Biology seems to largely be afraid of straying from the journal model, and so everybody is silo’d in their own groups, keeping their ideas private until the next publication.

        I also think it is important for just have somebody forge ahead. I think Richard Lenski‘s entrance is a good start for biology, but it seems that he lost some of his initial energy.

  3. Do you think this is a neuroscience thing or the state of science these days? I’ve been reading these biographies of early 20th century scientists and it seems like everyone was much more of a generalist. It was common to have big idea debates across sub-fields.

      • The more I think about it though, the more I think Bashir is right. I think biologists are less trained to think across subfields than, say mathematicians. Back in the day when I was working in Algebra, I could have told you all the basics of topology, analysis, etc. Now I’m a neurobiologist and if I could understand more than the introductory slide of half the mol bio lectures I go to I would be much more intelligent man

  4. Thanks for raising this question. I agree with you and jipkin that one reason is the range and diversity of the field. Despite what multidisciplinary graduate programs may expect from first year students, it’s impossible to keep up with one subarea within an SfN Theme, no less be conversant across multiple Themes.

    Another reason, for me, is that time limitations are prohibitive. Unfortunately, I can rarely find the time to comment on other blogs (given an actual job, 3 blogs, and multiple twitter accounts).

    I do believe there are microcommunities that discuss ideas big and small on social media, though.

  5. I’m not really a neuroscientist by training, so here’s my question. What are the BIG neuroscience questions? Is neuroscience a coherent field the way physics is? It seems to me perhaps not, it’s more a subject matter than a field. For example Cellular Biology seems more coherent. Or maybe even Animal Behavior.

    Part of this is that my impression is that a lot of neuro people are neuro only by happenstance. Really they are biologist of some type who happen to do neuro things. So the big neuro questions aren’t their driving interest.

  6. There are some signs of cohesion. I’ve seen quite a bit of blogging about the BRAIN Initiative, for example, that had the sort of back and forth mentioned here.

    That said, like other commenters in this thread, I agree that the diversity of neuroscience works against a cohesive blogosphere. The neuroethology I most often blog about (when I have time to do neuro blogging, darn it) doesn’t have much in common with cognitive fMRI studies, say.

    I might hypothesize that because so much of neuroscience is expensive, biomedically oriented, and NIH supported, that there is more pressure to stay at the bench and get data rather than say anything about the field.

  7. Thank you for this thought-provoking article. I am a newbie to blogging and tweeting Neuroscience, and I am still trying to understand the best way to use these social media academically. I have found that tweets with links to journal articles are useful for picking up relevant papers which I have missed, but I have some outstanding questions about blogging. If I have neuroscience thoughts to share, maybe in response to another blog, what are the advantages or disadvantages of putting them in a blog, as opposed to trying to get them published in a journal? The blogging is much faster, cheaper and less time consuming but the thoughts will be unpolished, not having been peer reviewed. Is it a bad thing to make public such ideas, some of which will inevitably turn out to be misinformation? Or is it a good thing because it will provoke debate? Is one problem with neuroscience blogging the fact that there are often ethical issues involved?

    • “Is one problem with neuroscience blogging the fact that there are often ethical issues involved?”

      No. Every field of research has ethical issues involved. Whether or not you know what they are is usually a matter of how involved you are in that field.

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