21 thoughts on ““You’re a professor at university, for f**k’s sake. Stop wasting your time on YouTube and do research””

  1. The comment is trolling (or if you were giving a lecture, heckling) in its most naked form. Put another way: “Why are you standing there giving a lecture when you should be in the lab?”.

    One only has to go back a few hundred years to see that public engagement drove the Renaissance and the Enlightenment – a few days ago Samuel Pepys’ diary entry related to a lecture (public) by a Doctor on anatomy, and Pepys notes what he has learned. So no justification needed whatsoever, whether you blog and have a reach of 1 or you are Brian Cox and have a reach of millions. It’s all teaching.

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  2. What Dorothy Bishop says is very much in line with what I’ve experienced. I’ve written a lot (some say too much 🙂 ) but it’s influenced how I think about science, how I write about science, and I’ve been forced to learn about a scientific topic in which I’m not really an expert. I’ve also published some papers as a result of this, including a couple that are more social science, than physical/natural science (something I think I would never have done otherwise). On top of, hopefully, making a positive contribution to public understanding of science, I’m a very different (and hopefully better) scientists because of my engagement publicly than I would be otherwise. Being an academic is – I would like to think – far more than simply following some formulaic process for doing research and teaching.

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  3. “The vast majority of academics are publicly funded. We therefore have an obligation to explain our research to the people who fund it. ”

    I think that sentence sums it up perfectly. The idea that science has no obligation to provide knowledge to anyone without the requisite level of education is wrong headed.


  4. Philip Moriarty: “Stephen’s final sentence here is key. The vast majority of academics are publicly funded. We therefore have an obligation to explain our research to the people who fund it.

    Stephen Curry actually wrote: “It’s not something every scientist needs to be involved in but …

    Not everyone should be doing outreach, it is fine if those scientists do it that like it and have some skill.

    Just like everyone has his own research style and like I would love universities to be more flexible and not expect everyone to be equally brilliant in every task: research, P&O, teaching, supervision, administration, etc. It would be great if scientists could specialize more on what they are good at.


  5. Just stopping by … your post made me think “good heavens, there are some odd types around”. I’m rather grateful for bloggers (the constructive sort, anyway) for the info provided to the non-specialist … I find “Sixty Symbols” rather restful as a kind of science tea-break when I’m feeling overburdened by the day job … anyway, a good and interesting post, and I wish that scientists collectively were thought to be “accessible” as the norm.


  6. I have not experienced any colleague or line manager directly and personally criticising my social media engagement and indeed, as you quote me in the piece, it has probably contributed to being asked to chair an Institute committee on public engagement. Reading your piece and other people’s experience, I do however also remember a few sneers at social media (from colleagues, not directed to me particularly) and a couple of anonymous comments asking whether it was really part of my job to criticise other people’s work on social media. However, as this was anonymous, not argued, and in the midst of a scientific controversy, I did not take it very seriously…


  7. That’s a great post. Although I am quite new to to twitter engagement, but already faced some back-lash for spending ‘time’ on the social networking sites doing stuffs that ‘do not’ matter and ‘nobody in academia’ cares about. My proposal to build a collaborative blog of the department for science and research communication was squashed directly at the proposal stage cause ‘nobody got time for that’. It looked like trying to do public engagement, especially through social networking sites placed me in an entirely different category and generated unfavorable views. These things made me skeptical about the positive side of social networks on my career. Following some of the friendly and not-so-friendly suggestions from the faculty members, now I am more focused on my ‘graduate study’ than science communications. It appeared to me that my public engagement efforts may have negative effect on the future of my academic career.


  8. As someone is not a scientist and not an academic I love it when scientists take the the time to explain things and put their ideas forward. I want to see more of it.

    However it’s important that researchers and teachers who don’t feel able to work in this way and prefer to keep a more traditional academic profile should not end up being less valued either.


  9. Academics and public engagement:
    You were/are definitely engaged in public interaction in science. In the non-science issue you engaged with people on Twitter and other venues, however, you were not immune to the standard impulses confronting *any* user of online forums. In other words, your own approach was decidedly ‘un-academic’: you refused to listen to the arguments from the other side, continuously modified your original stance to suit emerging evidence, and finally left the entire field in a huff when your positions became completely untenable. So is ATTP’s approach: he claims he is using online engagement to examine ideas and question controversial ideas but has created an online echo-chamber where none other those who agree with him are allowed, whose approach to blogging basically reduces to link and traffic exploitation, aka trolling. And what of Victor Venema, who, arguably, writes detailed technical posts on temperature measurement but indulges in constant partisan criticism of climate skeptics including disparagement of their Christian religion and once went so for as to find out personal details of family members of climate skeptics and doxxed them on Twitter?

    Online interaction and communication is fun, and it sharpens the intellect. The benefits it brings to academics are however indirect and diffuse. As evident in the examples from people in this very thread, academics are susceptible to the ‘dark side’ online, just as other users are, and can perpetrate ignorance, close-mindedness and can shut down discussions instead of fostering them, just as anyone else can.


    1. Welcome back, “Shub” — I thought you’d said you’d never post here again? (I’d like to say it’s good to have you back but…)

      you refused to listen to the arguments from the other side, continuously modified your original stance to suit emerging evidence,

      I’m very familiar with your disingenuity but this really takes the biscuit. Take a look at the following comments in response to similar statements you’ve made before, where I step-by-step replied to each of your arguments.



      To which your only response in the end was “You never listen. I give up”.

      Note that in the first comment to which I link I explicitly tackle your accusation that I modified “my original stance”. I even link to a comment that provides direct evidence to counter your accusation.

      And you ignored it.

      What you mean is that I don’t agree with you. That is a very different statement/position to “You never listen”. I disagree with you, fundamentally and on a variety of issues. To say, however, that I don’t listen to your arguments is disingenuous in the extreme. (How is this not listening to your arguments? — https://muircheartblog.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/where-two-tribes-go-to-roar/#comment-952 )

      …but then that’s par for the course, isn’t it?

      Edit 01/03/2016 — 12:30 — As regards religion, as someone who has vociferously argued for freedom of speech and that we should be able to say whatever the hell we like under any circumstances (see comments threads to which I link above), I’m sure you’ll be more than happy to agree that there is absolutely nothing wrong in disparaging mythology like Christianity (and the smorgasbord of other alternate bronze/iron age myths for which so much of humanity is depressingly in thrall). Sure, you’re not meant to take it seriously, y’know? — https://muircheartblog.wordpress.com/2015/06/02/sure-youre-not-meant-to-take-it-seriously/ (Or if you’re interested in religious mythology in the context of a diversity agenda, try this — https://muircheartblog.wordpress.com/2015/06/25/yes-were-all-individuals/


    2. Wow, I’m expanding the number of sites on which I defend my moderation policy. I think it is now almost impossible for me to comment on another blog without someone then complaining about how I run my own. Either I’m doing it really badly, ot I’m doing it so well that I’m annoying exactly the right people. I’ll leave others to decide which of those it might be.

      So is ATTP’s approach: he claims he is using online engagement to examine ideas and question controversial ideas

      I don’t think I’ve said any such thing. I started a blog with the intention of trying to maintain a civil dialogue about a contentious topic and Shub came along and I failed. The only context in which I’ve used “question controversial ideas” is in the context of me having the right to do so. Others, of course, have the right to do so too, but do not have an immediate and absolute right to do so on my blog; they’re free to run and moderate their own blogs, as Shub does indeed do.

      but has created an online echo-chamber where none other those who agree with him are allowed, whose approach to blogging basically reduces to link and traffic exploitation, aka trolling.

      I think this is just simply untrue, so am not really sure how to respond to this. Many who disagree with me comment on my blog, and I write a good number of posts that do not simply link to others. Bizarre.

      What would increase my respect for Shub above what it is now (i.e., non-existent) is if he/she were to at least acknowledge the possibility that I simply ban and moderate those who do not abide by my moderation policy, rather than his rather simplistic view that it’s everyone who happens to disagree with me.


  10. It’s interesting to read this as a graduate student. While I am in the Humanities, I certainly feel that there is a resistance to social media use and public engagement, especially for more junior scholars. Writing a popular non-fiction book (like Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Swerve”) is reserved for the very well established (and only then if you can claim certain credentials and pedigree). Prior to that, there seems to be a push to only focus on specialist research and publication. As a grad student, I shy from social media projects for a number of reasons (not enough time, lack of current expertise, a desire to occasionally sleep), but I’m hesitant to help with ongoing projects because of a bias against that type of outreach. Maybe we will see this change.

    All that being said, I adore the Sixty Symbols series. I believe that this type of work is so valuable. (And entertaining!)


    1. Thanks for your comment and for the kind words about Sixty Symbols. There was an article in the Times Higher a while back that argues that public engagement was more prevalent (and there was less resistance to it) in the arts and humanities as compared to the sciences. I was taken aback by this because in my experience there often is, as you say, an even larger focus in the non-STEM disciplines on specialist research/publication and an even greater degree of “sniffiness” with regard to academics connecting with the “outside world”.

      However, I only have anecdotal evidence for this. It would be good if someone did a well-designed study/comparison of the different disciplines’ attitudes to public engagement.


  11. I like the final sentence. As a physicist who has been writing a monthly newspaper column on science and a science blog for some years, I have occasionally wondered why so few of my colleagues take an interest in communicating science to the public.
    One reason might concern the topic of writing. While the public has a healthy appetite for cosmology and astronomy, it’s harder to write public-friendly pieces about lattice dynamics or carbon nanotubes on a regular basis.
    Another reason is that there is no rewards for writing a science blog, in a world where time is precious. Indeed, my experience is that blogs are indeed still regarded with suspicion by many academics. No surprise really, we are all trained to value fact over opinion, and most blogs do end up being quite opinionated.
    I used to write regular day-in-the-life posts on my blog, but I got tired of listening to myself in recent years. Nowadays I use the blog to record memorable conferences and events, surprising useful!


    1. Thanks for commenting, Cormac. (Good to meet your acquaintance, even “virtually”, by the way. I’ve enjoyed your contributions to Physics World over the years).

      I agree to a certain extent re astronomy vs “squalid state” science. However, in my experience there’s a huge appetite for quantum mechanics and the physics of the ultrasmall out there (even if the “Wow! Quantum!” factor is far too often heavily exaggerated — a particular irritation of mine). I’m lucky in that our research is based around scanning probe microscopy so in addition to the quantum factor images feature heavily.

      I also agree that there’s a certain subset of academics who view anything that goes anyway towards connecting outside academia — particularly social media — as deeply suspicious. Interestingly, I don’t think this is a “generational” thing — often senior professors/group leaders can be more comfortable with blogging/Twitter/YouTube etc… then some early career researchers.

      Documenting conferences/workshops at a blog is a great idea. I only wish that I was organised enough to do it!


  12. Hi Philip. Yes, you’re right that the world of the very small is also of great interest to the public, not least the interest in the Higgs boson. It’s curious that the most abstract areas of science are of perennial interest to the public, isn’t it? And that the two most famous scientists of the 20th century are both theoretical physicists.
    You’re right about the generation thing too, I haven’t found any correlation. Btw, I think the main determinant of blog readership is where the blog is listed. I have some empirical evidence for this: thanks to a technical change at wordpress in recent months, my own blogposts stopped appearing on the interactions.org portal. Most of my readership disappeared overnight!


  13. “There was an article in the Times Higher a while back that argues that public engagement was more prevalent (and there was less resistance to it) in the arts and humanities as compared to the sciences.”

    Stephen Jay Gould often lamented that science popularization was more accepted in Europe than in the USA, but in Europe I often hear that it is more accepted in the USA. This might be a grass-is-always-greener problem.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I’m a taxpayer and I’m very happy that you do public engagement work. Science does not exist in a vacuum, it is a human social practice. If we are to fund science research as a public good (good both in terms of “good” as a product and “good” as a value of worth) then I believe it essential and necessary that scientists do public engagement work.

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  15. I believe that you got directly to the heart of the matter in your closing sentences: it’s the comoditization and hoarding of knowledge that “cheapens” academia.

    As someone who works as a lecturer in physics and is preparing for graduate studies, I’ve found that the “ivory tower” approach accomplishes very little. Physics is beautiful as a thing-in-itself, but science exists for the benefit of all; and as such needs to be accessible to everyone. Outreach, such as that done by you and your colleagues, is vital to that inclusion.


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