In January, eight Extreme Biology students will travel to Science Online 2011, an international conference where scientists, educators, journalists, and students come together to discuss the way the web is changing science and science education. As part of their preparation, the students have conducted interviews with conference organizers, presenters, and participants. This is the first in the 2011 series.
Naseem interviews Bora Zivkovic:
As you know, eight of Ms. Baker’s students are venturing into the world of the international conference Science Online 2011 in January along with her and Dr. Ward! With two scientists, Marie-Claire Shanahan and Sophia Collins, we will be assembled in a panel to discuss the science illiteracy crisis in schools today. Our presentation is titled, “Still Waiting for a Superhero? Science Education Needs YOU!” and it meets on Saturday at 11:30am. Each of us have chosen an attendee of Scio11 to interview.
Bora Zivkovic, and his colleague Anton Zuiker, are the co-founders of Science Online. Bora sometimes checks out our blog and references it on his own blog, “A Blog Around the Clock.” He originally hails from Belgrade, Yugoslavia (which is now Serbia), and came to the U.S. in 1991. Currently, Bora is at Scientific American, running its Guest Blog, organizing his fourth international conference, and tweeting all about it on his twitter!
How and why did you start/organize Science Online? Were you matched with criticism when you brought up the idea or did you find it initially successful in the first conference?
I first broached the idea of a conference on my blog, in a post that received many positive comments from other science bloggers. People who know each other online like the idea of meeting each other in person. But I did not think it was practically possible, due to the cost of organizing such a meeting and the cost of travel for people coming from all around the world. One day, my friend Anton Zuiker pulled me aside during one of the local blogger meetups and said that this was possible to do if we focus on the local scientists and bloggers, if we focus on substantive discussions (and not just meeting and having fun), and if we seek local businesses to act as sponsors.
Thus the first conference was born and we were surprised and delighted at the response – people flew in from around the world so even that first 2007 conference was not exactly local in flavor. We had about 130 attendees. There was plenty of coverage in the media and on blogs and all of it was very positive. People urged us to turn this into an annual event. It has grown since then from a one-day to a three-day event and this year we expect more than 300 attendees (and many more, unfortunately, on the waitlist) from several countries. We will either livestream or record all of the sessions so people not in attendance can follow and participate. And, like last year, we expect lively action on Twitter throughout the conference.
What is your opinion on the declining literacy of US students in the subject of science, and does it have a potential for improving?
This is a difficult question. On one hand, according to annual polls and studies, it appears that the level of science literacy of the U.S. population is not declining – it has been really bad for many decades now and remaining at such low levels today. On the other hand, the level of scientific understanding is not evenly distributed across geography (big cities and college towns scoring much better than suburbs and rural areas), race, class, age and other categories. Yet, there is a problem even with these data – they measure the knowledge of scientific facts, the “trivia”, and do not really reflect either deeper understanding of what science is and how it works, or the trust that non-scientists have in science, scientists and scientific findings.
Since there are multiple factors and causes of low scientific literacy, understanding of the scientific process, and the trust in science, countering them also has to involve a number of different strategies.
First, science education in schools, targeting children, has to move from memorization of facts and words to a broader and deeper understanding of how science works, why it is important to adopt a reality-based worldview, and why scientific experts should be (mostly) trusted. Students need to be taught critical skills and smart evaluation of sources of information – if they do, reality-based information coming from scientists will inevitably “win” over pseudoscience, quackery or traditional wishful thinking. They need to be shown why irrational thinking and unquestioning acceptance of whatever adults claim is potentially dangerous for both the individual and for the society.
We don’t need to train many more research scientists – there are already too few jobs for the existing ones – but to train the general population – children and their parents alike – how to be skeptical of everyone’s claims, how to evaluate them in terms of the real world, how to demand evidence and not just authority claims, how to have courage to lose some of the most cherished beliefs they got from their loving but misguided parents, and how to have courage to oppose dangerous irrational myths that many adults are pushing for various reasons: tradition, fear of change, formulaic and timid media conventions, short-term financial gain, religious belief, or political games. If each generation is a little bit more reality-based than their parents’ generation – that is progress. That is the story of the history of civilization. But it is a slow and hard process because it is so hard and requires so much courage to dismiss what your parents taught you about the way the world works.
So, changing education as a whole – not just science education, but all of it – to teach critical skills is one important thing to do. Actively fighting the anti-science cultural forces, perhaps by discovering and publicizing the sources of their financing, is another. Actively teaching the professionals in the mass media – by criticism, shaming, and demonstrating the way it is properly done on blogs and other online places – to cover the world from a reality-based perspective: treating the purveyors of anti-reality either by dissecting their claims, or laughing at them, or marginalizing them by ignoring them, and not just letting them have a microphone and thus making their views legitimate. Museums, libraries, Hollywood, gaming, blogosphere, etc. – all of those are players in affecting how the general population thinks about the world and what claims it takes for granted, what claims it accepts through careful consideration, and what claims it dismisses. Thus scientists, and other allies with a reality-based worldview, need to try to affect all these industries, get jobs within them and transform them from within. It is a long and hard job, but together we can do it.
Do you believe knowledge is free? If so, why don’t other people feel the same way? Do you think the concept affects the success of future scientists?
The source of this idea is Stewart Brand, who in 1984 said: “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”
Knowledge is power. Those who have it are always going to have advantage over those who don’t, which is why they are reluctant to give it away, or at least to give it away without a financial gain for themselves. There are legitimate reasons for having secrets, e.g., national security, business plans that may lead to profits, etc. There are also legitimate reasons for charging for information if such information is a result of hard work by a professional who is trying to make a living from that work.
On the other hand, it has become very cheap to produce and disseminate information, and many people are quite willing to do it for free – see how many people take time to, for no financial reward, edit the Wikipedia or write about their area of real-world expertise on blogs. The means of production of information have become very cheap. Printing presses, radio stations, TV studios – those are very expensive to build, buy and run. The “real estate” – inches in a newspaper, minutes on radio and TV – are thus very expensive and people working in those industries expect to be paid for their investment. But the Web is very cheap – one needs electricity and online access to be able to do it. The “real estate” is essentially free.
There is no noticeable difference in either importance or quality between expensive information produced by professionals and the free information produced by experts and amateurs alike online. Both sources require judicious filtering and critical thinking skills – there is excellent information in both traditional and new media, and there is horrible misinformation in both as well – at approximately same ratios. Thus, with abundance of quality information available for free, fewer and fewer people find it in their interest to pay for the information, often substandard or at least available elsewhere, produced by traditional professionals.
It is a paradox that Web brought. In the past, it was expensive to produce and disseminate information. Today, it is expensive to prevent information for spreading around the globe for free. In this, I agree with Cory Doctorow who wrote that this phrase needs to be replaced by “People want to be free.” It is not about information in itself, it is who has it and how does one use it – it is about the people and their power.
When it comes to science, one needs to remember that not all scientists work in universities. Many are employed by the industry, government or the military. Scientist whose research can lead to patents, better national defense, or profit, are quite reasonable in being secretive and not publishing their results in places other than inside memos. But scientists working in the academia, funded by taxpayer money, should be embracing openness and transparency. Their careers are often dependent on their publication record, and having all of their work readily and freely available to everyone is good for their careers as their work gets read and cited more often. Also, unlike business or governmental information that may reasonably be kept secret (though there is always a tension where exactly that line is to be drawn), the findings of basic science are global in nature – we are all profiting from knowing and understanding how the world works. Thus such information should not be kept secret or kept hidden behind paywalls not affordable by most people (especially outside of the richest countries). More people in the world know and understand reality, better it is for all of us.
Why did you start your blog, “A Blog Around the Clock?” How much time a day do you spend on your blog? Is writing your blog a lot of work?
I started blogging in 2004 (and was on Usenet much earlier, in mid-1990s). I started “A Blog Around the Clock” in 2006 when I joined Scienceblogs.com. It was a fusion of my three older blogs, one focusing on science, one on politics and one on education. In the early years I used to spend a lot of time blogging. I posted an average of more than eight times a day for a while. My blog was both an outlet for everything I wanted to say and a kind of a marketing tool for myself – showing the world who I am, what I know, what I think. Years of blogging brought me a reputation online which resulted in two jobs – first with Public Library of Science (PLoS) from 2007 to 2010, and then with Scientific American (just started in September).
Right now, I am spending very little time on my blog. I have decided to take a little break from serious, thoughtful writing during this interim period – between leaving Scienceblogs.com and moving my blog to Scientific American site in a couple of months from now. I have plenty of ideas and am doing background and literature research for a number of posts I intend to write once my blog is again on a prominent platform with a large readership. In the meantime I am quite busy reading, learning, exchanging information on Twitter and Facebook, and actually working: running the Guest Blog at Scientific American and designing a science blogging network to be launched in a couple of months. Organization of ScienceOnline2011 and editing of the Open Laboratory anthology also take up quite a lot of my time.
You call yourself part of the “Beatles generation.” Did you find the technology of today hard to adjust to when it first came about? I understand you are an avid ‘Twitter-er.” Why Twitter?
I was never on the cutting edge of technology, but I did not avoid it either. I played games on early personal computers back in 1980 or so, but never learned any programing languages. I assumed that, as with every new technology, one needed to be an expert in the very beginning but that over time experts will develop the technology in ways that makes it easy to use by everyone. And look now – everyone, with zero computer skills, can use the Web in a variety of ways. It does not require one to write the software in order to start a blog, or communicate via social networks, or to upload videos online – the technology, originally restricted to those with special skills, is now democratized and open to everyone.
I understand that some people, often for professional reasons, have to try and test every new gadget and every new online service. I take my time. I take a look (as you can imagine, I get many invites to test or join various online services all the time), play around a little bit, and evaluate if the service is useful to me. Most of such things I abandon quickly. But there is no reason to put them down – just because something is not immediately useful to me does not mean it has no value for others.
I also seem to have a talent to immediately grasp the value and importance of something that is brand new. I instantly recognized the value of e-mail when it was new. The same with blogs (though it took me a while to start my own – I did when blogging became something useful for me). I joined Facebook in 2005, when it was just starting to move outside of Harvard. While I was already familiar with Friendster and MySpace at the time I instantly recognized that Facebook has some small but important differences that would make it much more useful than these older networks. I immediately understood, viscerally, the importance of Flickr and YouTube and FriendFeed. I still think that FriendFeed is the best social network ever designed, even today after a year since it was bought by Facebook so there is no new development. All the new improvements of Facebook, from “Like” buttons to improved search, are taken directly from FriendFeed and made Facebook so much better.
I did not join Twitter immediately. But I did not misunderstand it, or make fun of it. Some obviously smart people were finding a value in it, so I decided to keep an eye on it and, if and when it becomes valuable to me, to be prepared to jump in. I was monitoring Twitter indirectly – many people import their tweets into FriendFeed. When Twitter as a platform matured, when people discovered and settled on more useful ways of using Twitter, and when a sufficient number of scientists, science bloggers, science writers, science journalists, science teachers, and media critics got on Twitter and started using it in more productive ways (exchanging information and filtering links, not just chatter), I decided it was time for me to join in and I did not need any time to learn how to use it – it was by then already obvious.
If you could meet any scientist, dead or alive, who would you meet and why? What would you say to them?
I know this is no surprise, but I would really love to meet Charles Darwin. I’d love to have a nice, long dinner with him during which I can give him an update on how much his theory was developed, expanded and refined since he died. I’d teach him the basics of genetics, recount the debates on levels of selection (e.g., group selection, species selection), explain new concepts like neutral selection, niche-construction, punctuated equilibrium, (hyper)adaptationism, evo-devo as a new discipline, describe fossils discovered since then, summarize incredible advances in neuroscience and psychology, as well as describe cultural and social aspects of his ideas that were often misused for political purposes, from eugenics to creationism. I bet he’d have loved to get such an update from the future!
What was it like when you first came to the United States from your home country, Yugoslavia, which is now Serbia?
It was pretty scary as first. Yugoslavia was breaking apart in 1991 when I left, with several civil wars starting within the constituent Republics. I had no idea when and if I could go back, and also had no idea what to do if I stay here. In the long run, it all turned for the best. I went to grad school. I became a US citizen in 1998 and visited home three times in the meantime. The ex-Yugoslav countries, including Serbia, are now doing OK, trying to forget the nasty 1990s and have their sights set on the future.
Thank you. Looking forward to seeing you in January.