A short article in last week’s Science investigates the accuracy of scientific facts in blogs. Well, actually they only investigated one fact: extinction rates. They report that scientific consensus has predicted the maximum rate of extinction at 74 to 150 species per day. By using Google, Ashlin and Ladle searched for blogs that mention the number of species going extinct per day, and found that most bloggers from a group of thirty had the wrong idea about the number of species going extinct every day. Some said one, some said thousands.
We need more context
The article doesn’t give any specifics on the blogs they looked at. Since they used Google to find them, my guess is that it’s a broad range of blogs that for some reason or other, at one point in time felt the need to mention the number of species going extinct every day. Most of them were not sure about the exact number, but a lot of them come quite close. A few blogs mention “thousands” of species going extinct every day. But in what context? It could be part of a joke, it could be a quote from the crazy guy yelling on the subway, it could be the title of a poem. It’s not necessarily someone teaching their blog readers that there are really thousands of species going extinct every day.
And how many readers do these blogs have? Are they popular blogs that usually offer sound scientific information? Did any readers leave a comment to further discuss extinction?
No reason to worry
Ashlin and Ladle use their data to support their opinion that blogging should be accounted for in science communication, and that more scientists should blog or promote blogging.
I completely agree with their suggestion, but I think they used the wrong example to make their point. They even implicitly touch on my criticism by mentioning that anyone can easily start a blog. That’s exactly it: there are millions of blogs, many are unread, and many are not to be taken seriously. The fact that out of millions of blogs thirty have mentioned extinction rates and only about a third of them got their numbers right is not a reason to worry.
Out of curiousity, I repeated the search from the article. I did a Google blog search for the phrases “extinct per day” and “extinct every day”. “Extinct per day” gave me nothing, so I left out the quotes, and that gave me too much. I stopped at four blogs rather than the thirty from the original paper, but a few of those actually listed extinction rates per hour or year, so I had to recalculate.
This number is in the right ballpark, and here someone realized that there are inconsistencies. There’s a wrong number somewhere in this long post, as well as in this one about childcare.
Out of the four links that I just showed you, the one correct number was in the science-themed blog of a PhD student in environmental sciences, quoting a lecture she had attended. Now if you had to find out extinction rates, and you had only these four blogs as your source material, would you not have trusted that one the most?
I repeated the search with Technorati, where you can also search for blogs with different levels of “authority” (which means “popularity” on Technorati), and none of the blogs that mention extinction are “high authority” blogs.
Blog for the right reasons
In blogging, it’s not just about number of posts, it’s also about who is blogging and who is reading. That is what should be the motivation for researchers to blog, and not the fact that there are millions of blogs out there that don’t know what they’re talking about. If the cashier at the supermarket or my favourite band tells me that every day 300 species go extinct, I won’t take their word for it. Similarly, if someone blogging about cheesecakes or sailing tells me that every day 300 species go extinct, I won’t take their word for it either. It doesn’t make sense from the context to take it as a scientific fact.
And now, if you google “every day 300 species go extinct”, this blog post will show up, but would it really make you believe that this is the correct number?