I propose an experiment. Head on over to Cosmic Variance or Bad Astronomy. Count the posts on the front page that have to do with their respective subject areas and how many have to do with politics or religion. Hold that ratio in your head for a moment.
Professor Orzel on Uncertain Principles is discussing the limitations of science blogging in terms of how much of a scientific education people can get from reading those blogs. He thinks there’s certain limitations intrinsic to the form, and he’s right. But he also makes a tangential point in passing:
Look, I don’t disagree with a thing he says about the incentive structure of science blogging, and blogging in general. He’s absolutely right that the desire for traffic pushes people to write about topics that will bring page views and comments, which all too often makes scienceblogs.com feel like ranting-about-religion-blogs.com. His analysis of the culture and processes of the science blogosphere is spot-on.
This I agree with, except the possible traffic motivation. Do those kinds of posts actually drive up traffic? After all, there’s a lot of blogs out there which are specifically about politics. Tons of them. Metric tons, even. There’s not exactly a shortage of religion blogs out there either, from the most strident atheism to mainline Christianity to obscure deranged cults. There is some supply and demand at work here. There’s a finite number of eyeballs interested in reading about those subjects, and a glut of supply is going to make it difficult to obtain traction with readership. If traffic honestly spikes noticeably after a post about one of those subjects I would be surprised.
There’s also the risk of alienating some readers. I personally tend to get a bit peevish when I head off on the blog circuit to read about science and end up reading a dozen angry screeds about the latest partisan outrage - even in those cases where I agree with the view of the writers. Blogs, however, are a free product of the writers and any person who doesn’t like the content is free to not read them. Many well-known science bloggers who like to write heavily about politics and religion have said just this. It’s a perfectly true and perfectly valid policy.
I wonder, however, why so many science writers make that particular decision at the risk of losing part of their audience who otherwise would love to read about science. I have a guess. In some sense, writing about science simply serves to make the readers a tiny bit more familiar with some interesting piece of the natural world. It’s good for public awareness of science and good to spread ideas and perspectives, but it’s an epiphenomenon of scientists, not science. Science would go on unimpeded if every science blog vanished tomorrow. After all, it went on just fine in the centuries before blogging was invented. Politics on the other hand involves the entire population, and in a democracy the direction of public policy is directly influenced by what the people are voting for. Writing to try to promote your politics views feels like directly Making A Difference in a way that writing about research does not. Every mind changed, changes the body politic. I think that, not traffic, is probably the motivation for political writing. (Swans on Tea has some thoughts along these lines as well.)
But does it actually make a difference, or does it just feel that way? I find it hard to imagine anyone is going to read this recent Cosmic Variance post and change their minds about war crimes charges for the Bush administration. A part of the audience will nod in agreement, the other part will roll its eyes in disagreement and possibly not return, and no one will leave knowing anything more about physics.
You may be able to tell I’m not a huge fan of the “I’ll write about politics anyway and if you don’t like it you can leave” school of science blogging (Though I have nothing personal against those with that policy!). So for this site, I’m going to try a different tactic at least for the time being.
I myself have strong opinions about politics and religion. It’s probable I may even write about them here from time to time. But I will do my best to keep my writings on those topics to a minimum. When I do write about them, I’ll try to see that they’re at least partially related to the putative subject of this site. And just for good measure I think I’ll put them under a link with a disclaimer urging you not to click it. I think you are smart enough to make up your own minds without me haranguing you.