The corn god Tlaloc. This will only make sense to you if you read the post. Image: Baggis

This is a post about our first question time, posted originally to my personal blog on March 18th. A recap of Question Time #2 is coming soon!

So on Monday we kicked off the #sci4hels Question Time! Which I explained here but is not hard to understand. Basically, once in a while, I’ll ask a question on Twitter and hope that people jump in and respond and have an interesting discussion. That did happen on Monday, although not quite  the way I expected. Let’s review.

The question:

Oh man question time! #sci4hels wants to know: Is science a specific enough beat, or do you have to specialize more?

— Rose Eveleth (@roseveleth) March 11, 2013

On Twitter (and elsewhere), there’s been a lot of conversation about beats. Quartz has switched to “obsessions” but no one really knows what that means.

There were some interesting, and conflicting answers to be had.

People consume all sorts of science writing, which requires all sorts of types of science writers.#sci4hels

— Shaun Hotchkiss (@just_shaun) March 11, 2013

Surely there is a market for both. i.e. science writers who are very general and active researchers who focus on their field. #sci4hels — Shaun Hotchkiss (@just_shaun) March 11, 2013

#sci4hels Power is with science writers who are able to link science to specific causes (eg mix science with advocacy to elicit change) 1/2 — Khalil A. Cassimally (@notscientific) March 11, 2013

#sci4hels To do so, need to understand more than just the science. Hence more specific perhaps not as useful. 2/2 — Khalil A. Cassimally (@notscientific) March 11, 2013

People like Lou Woodley, Laura Wheeler and David Manly pointed out that beats can help writers develop expertise and contacts. Having a beat helps someone know who to ask when they’re working on a story, or understand the latest finding in the context of the broader field. Then I went and said something controversial, as I am often prone to doing: that the internet makes finding sources and background information easy enough that beats aren’t required anymore. To find the right source for something, as a science reporter, you just find the paper, and email the authors. Google Scholar and email have made finding sources a breeze, and the internet has archived all the background you could possibly want on every topic. Not everyone agreed:

@roseveleth @boraz @davidmanly @just_shaun internet can also make it harder – there is so much to sift through! Need to know *where* to look — Laura Wheeler (@laurawheelers) March 11, 2013

@roseveleth @laurawheelers @boraz @just_shaun If you know what to look for — David Manly (@davidmanly) March 11, 2013

Ed Yong came up with an apt analogy:

@roseveleth As in wild, specialists exploit niches well but vulnerable to extinct’n. Generalists more resilient, but some are rats #sci4hels — Ed Yong(@edyong209) March 11, 2013

And then, well, I’m not really sure what happened. But the conversation started to get away from me. At which point I was like:   And then finally gave up. Elsewhere on Twitter, Erin Podolak was actually having a constructive discussion of the question at hand.

Re: beats/specialties I write about cancer, but in such a broad context with so many connections that I don’t find it limiting #sci4hels — Erin Podolak (@ErinPodolak) March 11, 2013

Okay, so what did we learn here. First, that having a guided conversation on Twitter is HARD. It felt kind of like playing this cat piano.

Okay really I just want to use this cat piano GIF, because LOOK AT IT. Second, I should have used a hashtag so I could just Storify this rather than combing through a bunch of Tweets. Next time we’ll be Tweeting with the #helsinkiquestions hashtag. Third, beats are useful if you want to have one. Obviously, lots of people are quite successful at their beats because they’re the experts. Look at Emily Willingham on autism, Maryn McKenna on MRSA and Maia Szalavitz on addiction. Other science journalists have more broad beats. Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer have a loosely defined biology beat on lockdown. Colin Schultz covers all things Canada. Some of us are searching for a beat, and others of us are willfully ignoring the question. Basically, Ed Yong sums it up pretty well here:

@roseveleth @boraz @davidmanly @laurawheelers @just_shaun “The right level of specialisation is the exact level I have” <- All the answers

— Ed Yong(@edyong209) March 11, 2013

So what should we cover next time? Coding? Freelancing vs. full time jobs? The impending threat of computer reporters? Ask us a question!