Sunday, 23 August 2009

Amongst The Science Bloggers

Yesterday I went along to the Science Online Conference at the Royal Institution.

Somehow I had been put down as a speaker in a joint session with the wonderful Dr Petra Boynton. This session would look at the ethics (Petra) and legalities (me) of blogging.

I was not looking forward to this.

I loathe public speaking (this is regardless of whether I am actually any good at it), but the ethics and law of blogging is an important issue, and with recent cases such as Night Jack and Liskula Cohen, it seemed useful that someone report on the current situation and its possible implications.

However, what made it worse for me was that amongst those attending were some of the greatest science and skeptic bloggers: the legendary David Colquhoun, the highly influential Andy Lewis of Quackometer , the incredibly insightful Dr Aust, Frank Swain - the the SciencePunk himself, and so on.

It was even rumoured that the majestic Gimpy was there, a bad science blogger rated as a first rate investigative writer by even broadsheet journalists.

What could possibly go wrong in front of such luminaries?

But if one is going to have to go through the ordeal of public speaking, one may as well do it in the world famous Royal Institution Lecture Theatre, which of course hosts the world famous Christmas Lectures for children.

This would be a particular honour, as for different reasons nether Petra nor I could reasonably expect to be invited to give the Christmas Lectures.

Our session was a closed one. This meant that there was no "Second Life" stream and attendees were asked not to do live blogging. This is not unusual when lawyers and others give talks on liability issues. Real people can actually rely on what seems to be advice in practical and difficult situations, and so unless there are appropriate disclaimers and controls, it can be difficult for certain legal issues to be discussed in meetings (or in print).

Our session was also the first one of the day. This was a last minute switch. The "Second Life" stream was not working and so the organisers thought ethics and law would be a splendid way to start the morning session.

So half-asleep and ridden with caffeine, and armed only with two science O-Levels (both grade 'C') from 1987, I looked up in this famed and imposing scientific lecture theatre and saw scores of science bloggers looking down at me. Well, the ones who were not perched behind their Apple Mac laptops anyway, each Apple logo seeming to me at that moment as scary as a street gang emblem.

And then they started Twittering.

I was not aware of this at the time, thankfully, as I would have simply frozen, and mumbled all the more. But these invisible messages were darting around the lecture theatre from laptop to laptop, like a horrible cyberspace version of Hitchcock's The Birds.

As requested, the Twittering was not about the content of the talk. I am grateful to each attendee there for helping me out on that.

But the course and success of the talk can perhaps be gauged by some of the Twitters made.

@gimpyblog: @jackofkent has lawyers hair

@Enroweb: starting the conference with legal aspects of blogging is definitely a party crasher

@Skyponderer replies to a curious absentee: You're not missing much

Others were kinder and more polite, perhaps feeling sorry for the Arts graduate in their midst.

Fortunately, Petra is an amazing speaker and covered the ethics side with her characteristic wisdom and humanity, and so I think the session went well overall. And the inherent interest in the legal side of blogging meant that the attention of attendees did not wander too much.

The key point which I wanted to get across was that to put things into the public domain - via blogs, message boards, Twittering or whatever - is to publish (to "public") those things.

And that, in the view of the law, being the publisher means one is creating exposure to liability in civil law (libel, copyright, confidentiality, and privacy) and even criminal law (contempt of court, consumer protection) which ten years ago and before would have been decisions more for editors and publishers, rather than the author.

@phnk: Jack's conclusion could be "you need a good lawyer to blog, and I happen to know one"


However, I would prefer a very different conclusion to be drawn.

One does not really need to be or have a good lawyer to blog or otherwise self-publish on the internet, one just needs to be as sensible, considered and responsible as one would be writing in any other medium.

This should not be a problem.

For - as Ben Goldacre said in describing the science bloggers who destroyed the plethora of "evidence" put forward by the now discredited British Chiropractic Association in their misconceived libel case against Simon Singh - British science bloggers do many things very, very well indeed.


Jo said...

Enjoyed your bit - it was funny as well as highlighting some things I'd not really been aware of. Also it was (not surprisingly, come to think of it) very clearly set out. I even made notes!

You might not be officially a scientist in terms of qualifications but I still lump you in with the science gang because of the shared clear thinking & problem solving skills, gleeful debunking of bad ideas and wrong-headed thinking etc. Consider yourself lumped ;)

rpg said...

Thanks for facing the Lion's den, Jack.

You said some very useful things, and there was a lot of food for thought. Well played.

Colin said...

I enjoyed your talk enormously, thanks for being prepared to give it. I am going to rewrite a few blog posts to take your advice into account.

I was sitting behind David Colquhoun. I got the impression that he was treating it as check list of what he needed to do if he ever did want to get sued.

Podblack said...

Ew, maybe people should NOT Twitter as a talk goes on. I've found it a turn-off, because people seem to get negative first and foremost. Awful to go back later, because you'll spot the most 'meh' ones first and ignore any 'I was so glad to see X present! What a treat!' in 140 characters. :/

Whilst laptops are one thing - I'm tempted to see if the 'turn mobile phones off' rule that is typical for lectures could be applied to Twittering phones as well.

AJC said...

As someone who was there yesterday, my initial feeling was that it was unfortunate that the timetable had to be changed so that you were first up - it would have been nice to have started on a more "positive" note, i.e. what to do rather than what not to do. However, by the end of your talk, I had changed my mind and felt that you (both) provided a very valuable additional dimension to the day, so thanks very much, and hope to talk to you again online.

Jack of Kent said...

Fair point Podblack, though I suspect Twittering at conferences is really a fad and it will pass.

To their credit, most ot the negative Twittering stopped after the "do not flame a lawyer" warning :-)

Only dear carried on being trying to be offensive all the way though. Bless.

Frank the SciencePunk said...

Sadly I missed your talk, but I'm sure you were as illuminating and entertaining as you were the rest of the time!

maxine said...

There's always one ("trying to be offensive") stuck at age 2.

I found it a very helpful talk, thank you both very much for making the effort to come along and provide such useful context. (And first thing in the morning, too!)

Dale Lane said...

RE: twittering at conferences

If it's going to happen anyway, it can be helpful to expose it during your presentation.

I've tried giving presentations with a live twitter stream projected where everyone can see it.

You need to be careful to stop it being a distraction, but it can be done. And I've found that it stops attendees being so negative if their comments are put where everyone, including the presenter, can see them.

I've got an example at

Ben Murphy said...

Jack, for obvious reasons, I couldn't attend the talk, but congratulations on the invitation. And better lawyer's hair than no hair at all.

Dr Aust said...

I'm with Jo at the top of the thread re. the talk - thought you and Petra B did a nice job, and I certainly learned some new things. Plus it would have taken far longer to glean the same info off the net.

And... I speak as someone with a deeply ingrained aversion to having to pay attention at 9.30 in the morning..!! Why else would I have become an academic?

Anyway, a pleasure to meet you at last. Keep up the good work.

Allyson Lister said...

Thanks very much - you and Petra were a good combination. I think most people didn't mind the change in order of presentation, and I really appreciate all the information you shared with us. I may not have said thanks on Twitter, but I'm more of a FriendFeed and blogging person anyway!

Thanks again :)

Martin Fenner said...

It wasn't noticeable that you loathe public speaking, it was a very informative and entertaining session. I especially liked how Petra and you kept going back and forth, much cleverer than one speaker after the other.

Jim said...

I too enjoyed your talk, and from my own perspective as someone who happens to love public speaking, you did damn well; in fact I have three-pages of notes from it (all of which I will assuredly not take to be 'official' legal advice, more a suggestion).

HDB said...

Neat! Wish I could have heard it.

Heather said...

As one of the distant attendees only able to observe through the Second Life video, I was rather sorry not to see your presentation. It was a significant draw for me, a necessary complement to last year's program. I would have promised in a binding way not to take notes.

I believe the tweeting was only on that level because most people there in person were trying to respect the injunction not to live-transmit any notes on the talk, and they had restless fingers. If you had been scheduled at 4PM there would have been nothing at all tweeted, as they would have been tired.

Anyhow, you and Petra brought an additional note of useful professionalism to this year's proceedings, so you should be nothing but proud. I'd have liked to compliment the contents of your talk, but maybe another time ;-)

David Colquhoun said...

Hehe I just noticed Colin's comment (#3).

I thought the talk was really useful -I'd never really though about things like what constitutes "publication".

Colin has a point though. The whole point about blogs (well the personal ones as opposed to the corporate ones) is to be able to say what you think. I think, for example, that Simon Singh should be able to use the word "bogus" it that's his opinion. To that extent it should perhaps be the aim to only just not get sued. To achieve that you need good advice.

Maggie said...

So many people loathe and detest public speaking - so well done for giving it a go.