Science blogging in the Arab world (or the lack thereof)


This was first posted at Nature Middle East blog ‘House of Wisdom’.

When I started browsing the web for science blogs from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, I didn’t think it would be such an adventure. And for a quest, it was one.

I thus started entering keywords in the search engine. The outcome was disappointing: one or two blogs in English popped up. I thought it is because I was only searching in English, but French and Arabic searches did not harbour significantly more results. When I asked friends to point me out my wrongdoing, they just laughed and the comment invariably was: “dear, spare your efforts, there is no such thing like science blogging in the region.”

The blogging culture in the Arab world thus seems to mainly touch opinionated people with a say in politics and economy. There is nothing wrong with this. I’ll spare you a lecture on the importance of social media for changing the society we live in, this has been thoroughly discussed elsewhere. Loads of bits and ink have also been spilled to demonstrate the importance of science blogging. Given the paucity of science blogs in the Arab World, I guess a reminder is more than useful.

Why writing about science? Reason #1: scientists get to speak directly to the public. Reason #2: lay scientists or enthusiasts engage and keep up to date with developments in various scientific fields. Reason #3: open discussions on research topics are promoted among peers.

This sounds great, motivating and all that. There is, however, a recurrent feature pointing its nose from this shortlist: scientists should initiate and nurture this dynamics, ideally complemented by active science writers and journalists.

If you are reading this piece, it means you are aware that science is an emerging field in the Arab world. Funding is far from sufficient to secure comfortable or even basal equipment for research. Moreover, political influence in science making and communication is a fundamental characteristics in the region. Doctoral degrees are, however, greatly appreciated in all MENA countries. Additionally, journalism and mass communication are a frequently taught discipline. But science and journalism do not really mingle, after all.

If you browse the websites of major universities in the Arab countries, you realize that they are rarely updated. Even if they are so, press releases about endeavours and achievements seldom land on journalists’ desks. Very often, the few science-related articles one stumbles upon in a newspaper are just a translation from foreign sources. This clearly gives the bitter taste of “nothing happens in our part of the world.” Even such admirable initiatives as publishing 50,000 PhD theses online and using the platform as a networking hub finally fail: the dedicated website does not exist at all.

A different dynamics is operated in the Gulf states where Western universities have started to settle, and scarce reports about conferences see the day. Although progress is clear, science communication still has much room for improvement.

All this bashing is actually aimed at alarming you, the readers and scientists: the world does need decent science communication. And I write “communication” rather than “journalism” on purpose. As aforementioned, science makers should proactively engage into discussions with non-scientists. The bottom line is that it is easy to blame science journalists who pretty often do their best. Thus, the question is not to know to what extent Middle Eastern scientists should care and help create the conversation with non-scientists, but rather: why aren’t they already doing so?

Of course, many science blogs exist, and many of the bloggers are also working scientists. Perhaps people from MENA are just perfectly fine reading these resources? I fail to believe this is very likely since those just do not address the Arab world public. And even if I were wrong and existing science blogs provide sufficient input to curious enthusiasts from MENA, the crucial question remains whether this communication channel properly engages local science makers into a satisfactory interaction with the public. From this perspective, saying that the MENA science domain is represented within the current science blogging landscape is at best shoehorning.

Is it a failure or an unrealistic expectation to aim at establishing public engagement with science through blogging in the Middle East? Given that research is an emerging field, sentencing science blogging in the region as a ‘failure’ is a bit too harsh and purely unfair. As for the unrealistic expectation, I believe it is not one such: the region is far from short on talented scientists and future researchers.

Better, success stories from African science and science journalism are become more numerous. There is, for example, this initiative documenting African Science Heroes or else the exciting journey in the history of African science. And the best for the end: the first virtual science newsroom kicked off just a few months ago.

Through my quest for the MENA science blogs treasure, I bumped into a few blogs initiated or nurtured by scientists. Unfortunately, they are dormant or worse abandoned. Unfortunately when one recalls the disastrous reaction the Egyptian government in 2010 had to the ‘swine flu’ pandemics, resulting into the slaughter of all the pigs in the country and unnecessary panic uncritical coverage by local media caused to the population. I firmly believe this would have never happened if science makers and health practitioners had stepped forward when needed.

There are countless newspapers, both printed and online. These are what many people read every day. Such resources and the World Wide Web are replete with stories, and the number of connected and tech-literate young people is increasing steadily as you read this. But the number of active people with proper knowledge of science are far too few to tell fact from fiction and critically address tale-spinning by unreliable peers. Look at the gallery below and look at it as a (future) scientist, then think of the impact this kind of delirious spins have on our friends and families. Should we keep on perpetrating ‘swine flu’-like mass hysteria case on a daily basis? Isn’t it also our responsibility to share the knowledge we have with them?

Click on any of the images below to enlarge them.

Bisexuality and homosexuality
Bisexuality is an anomaly, says a professor of andrology and infertility. He also explains that “this person is much more dangerous than the gay man, because he can, unfortunately, make a family and marry a woman to complete an external façade of manhood from the outside and retain his status in front of society. He can even have children all by [in the same time] having a lover or a male friend to practice sex with. And he may practice devious sexual behaviour with his wife [meaning anal intercourse] while usually preventing her from her right [meaning vaginal intercourse].”
Healing by camel urine
Camel urine as a nearly-universal treatment, a medication advertised and advocated for by Dr. Zaghloul el-Nagar (geologist turned Islamist thinker/writer, author of books and articles in all kinds of mainstream press). Dr. el-Nagar not only “proved diseases can be successfully treated with camel urine” but also claimed to have established a specialised health centre focused on this medication. Dr. el-Nagar adds that “some companies already manufacture medicines from the urine of pregnant women.” According to the article, such public appearances “have triggered lively discussions on the benefits and the compliance of drinking the Prophet Muhammad’s urine.”
Hepatitis C false cure
The cure for hepatitis C finally here, sensationalist article claims. An american researcher “discovered a new drug in the form of capsules for the elimination of the virus causing hepatitis C in 90 days, but it’s still been tested in the US and Europe.”
Mecca as the centre of Earth
Mecca is the centre of gravity of the planet Earth. Numerous discussions in both English and Arabic can be found on the web. Here is an explanation by a renowned professor asserting Neil Armstrong proved this claim thus transforming it into a scientific fact (Arabic with English subtitles).
Flat earth
Last but not least, a widely circulated image on social networks.