Awhile back, I wrote a short post for the #scimom project initiated by David Wescott. I thought that this project was a good idea, and I still do- as I said in my initial post, I think the scientific blogging community and the parenting blogging community could learn a lot from each other. I'm also a passionate advocate for the idea that it is not only possible, but even perhaps enjoyable, to combine a career in science with motherhood, and I thought that the #scimom project might raise the profile of us "scientist mothers" a bit. David has a wrap up post up, in which he talks about what the #scimom meme did and did not accomplish. One of the successes he highlights is that it got scientists who are mothers to write about what that means to them, and I agree- that was definitely a good thing. He was perhaps a little disappointed by the fact that he didn't really get much cross-talk between the two blogging communities, though.
I frequent blogs in both communities, and I have some thoughts on how they might learn to engage with each other. I've written and deleted several attempts to explain my thoughts- so if what I write offends you, please believe me that I tried hard to write this in a way that would not offend. I genuinely liked and appreciated the #scimom initiative. There are excellent blogs written by wonderful people in both communities. But for there to be significant cross-talk between the communities, I think both will need to make some changes and be willing to go outside their comfort zone.
There is no question that there are differences in style between the two communities. One of the most significant, in my opinion, is the tone of the comments. Perhaps because we're all so tired of the "mommy wars", most mom bloggers try to temper disagreements and discuss issues as non-confrontationally as possible. People seem to really go out of their way to try to acknowledge the validity of opposing points of view. Science bloggers, on the other hand, engage like scientists- i.e., arguing the points vigorously, letting the chips fall where they may. In fact, I think some science bloggers may be more confrontational online than they would be at a scientific conference. There's nothing wrong with this, but it is a definite difference in style, and I have to keep that in mind as I bounce between the communities, and it might make commenting on some of the bigger science blogs a bit intimidating for someone used to a more welcoming comment section, particularly someone from outside the science community.
Because, let's be honest, scientists can sometimes be dismissive of the contributions of people who are not scientists, particularly to debates that we feel rightly belong in the realm of science- just look at the way many prominent science bloggers dismiss all alternative medicine as "woo". Now, I agree that medical treatment should be based in science. But the dismissive, sarcastic, and frankly condescending tone of some of those posts will win no converts to that cause. In most cases, I think this is no big deal. If people want to believe in homeopathy, that is their prerogative. In the case of vaccinations, though, I think the science community owes it to the children of the world to swallow our pride and try a little harder to reach the decision makers- who, as David rightly points out, are more often than not the mothers. I'm pretty sure that calling them stupid for having any doubts about vaccinating their children won't do us any good.
I once got involved in a discussion on a mom blog on vaccinations. At one point, someone posted a comment that said I had changed her mind- she was going to get her child vaccinated. I have no way of knowing if that was true, but I hope so. If it was, it was one of the best things I've ever done via blogging. For a long time, I wondered why someone would dismiss the advice of the pediatrician they no doubt carefully selected but listen to some random person on the internet who doesn't even use her real name when she posts. Then, I came across an opinion piece in Nature that helped me make sense of this. The piece, called Fixing the Communications Failure, is by Dan Kahan, a law professor at Yale. It summarizes research that shows that people filter facts based on their connections with communities to which they belong. They studied how people perceived the risks and benefits of nanotechnology, and "found that relative to counterparts in a control group, people who were supplied with neutral, balanced information immediately splintered into highly polarized factions consistent with their cultural predispositions towards more familiar environmental risks, such as nuclear power and genetically modified foods." They also find that "the experts whom laypersons see as credible...are ones whom they perceive as sharing their values."
This helped me understand what had happened on that mom blog. It was a blog to which I posted frequent comments. I was seen as a member of the community, and it was known that I shared many of the same parenting values (roughly put, an attachment parenting slant). So when I explained the evidence for vaccines and against the false scares, this one mother listened to me- even though I am sure that I did not do as good a job explaining things as the experts on a site like Science-Based Medicine would.
All of this leads me to believe that if scientists want to engage with the mom blogging community, they will need to venture out from their blogs and go to the mom blogs themselves. And to have their voices really heard, they will need to become part of those communities, not just fly-by visitors. This is what I have done, not because I have some ulterior motive to sway the opinions of other mothers, but because I enjoy those mom blogs. If my involvement there brings a little more science to the discussions than would otherwise be there, that is great, but it was not my goal.
None of this is to say that mom bloggers should just sit back and wait for scientists to come to them. I think science has too much to add to important parenting decisions for that to be wise. At the very least, they will have to be willing to engage with scientists a bit more on their own terms, and accept the inevitable uncertainties and scientific difficulties into their views. A recent tweet from the excellent mom blogger Mom-101 reminded me of the obstacles to this. She retweeted a link from @selfmademom to a NY Times opinion piece about BPA. I've been on the fence about BPA, because I think the science is still unclear, but I sort of agree with the idea of asking manufacturers to do premarket testing on new chemicals, as suggested in that opinion piece. However, I also think that the issue is way, way, way more complicated than that piece implies. For one thing, what would we test for? Carcinogenicity? Endocrine disrupting potential? Neurotoxicity? All of those and more? And once we settle on what we want to test, what models would we use? As the scientific controversy around BPA demonstrates, the choice of model system can have a profound impact on the results. Even if we know what model we want to use, is it feasible to use on the scale that such testing would require? I have seen estimates that to test even a subset of commonly used chemicals for just neurotoxicity would require more rodents than are present on the planet. How would we pay for this? If manufacturers bear the entire cost, are we ready for the $20 baby bottles that might ensue?
None of this is to say that the goal is a bad one. As I said, I actually agree with the goal. But given the obstacles between us and that goal, I don't think there is any negligence going on in our governmental agencies. I think that it is just a really hard problem, and the scientific community is going to need some time to come up with solutions. They are trying. For instance, I recently came across the work of Linda Restifo, who is arguing that the humble fruit fly might provide a useful model for a neurotoxicity screen. If this model system works out, it could greatly reduce the number of rodents needed for neurotoxicity screening, and move us closer to being able to screen all chemicals.
This is a long, complicated response to a single tweet. I obviously couldn't send that response as a tweet. So here is what I said instead: "@Mom101, I'd also like to see premarket testing. But there are hard problems to solve, in terms of $ and # of animals needed to do tests." Did this do an adequate job of getting my point across? I don't know. It is hard to convey scientific complexity in 140 characters.
I'm not sure how we bridge the gap between the type of explanation needed to describe the scientific reality and the sorts of opportunities we get to convey it, but I know that it is going to require mom bloggers (and other interested non-scientists) to tolerate longer winded responses than they are used to. None of this is to impune on the wonderful Mom-101 feed or blog- in fact Liz not only tolerates my occasional long-winded scientific comments, she seems to welcome them. But I think it illustrates the problem.
So while I applaud the #scimom initiative and have genuinely enjoyed reading the posts, I am not surprised that it did not achieve the sort of cross-talk David hoped for. That is going to require more effort from both sides than can be captured on Twitter, and it is going to require some genuine cross-community bridge building, not just some blog posts from scientists who happen to be mothers- although that is an excellent start.