Virginia Heffernan vs. ScienceBlogs

Virginia Heffernan over at the New York Times has an essay today, Unnatural Science, which launches two strong attacks on science blogging: its naivete and its corruption.

She starts with the recent controvery over at ScienceBlogs, the so-called PepsiGate where the Seed organization gave Pepsi its own blog on par with all the other science blogs there. PepsiGate then led to the departure of many prominent science bloggers from ScienceBlogs. This is where Heffernan calls science bloggers naive, not used to being part of the media:

I was nonplussed by the high dudgeon of the so-called SciBlings. The bloggers evidently write often enough for ad-free academic journals that they still fume about adjacencies, advertorial and infomercials. Most writers for “legacy” media like newspapers, magazines and TV see brush fires over business-editorial crossings as an occupational hazard.

But the heart of Heffernan’s critique is actually the way science bloggers behave – too much vindictiveness and bigotry, not enough science.

But the bloggers’ eek-a-mouse posturing wasn’t the most striking part of the affair. Instead, it was the weird vindictiveness of many of the most prominent blogs. The stilted and seething tone of some of the defection posts sent me into the ScienceBlogs archives, where I expected to find original insights into science… And while I found interesting stuff here and there, I also discovered that ScienceBlogs has become preoccupied with trivia, name-calling and saber rattling. Maybe that’s why the ScienceBlogs ship started to sink… Hammering away at an ideology, substituting stridency for contemplation, pummeling its enemies in absentia: ScienceBlogs has become Fox News for the religion-baiting, peak-oil crowd.

She in particular highlights PZ Myers, one of the most popular science bloggers out there:

PZ Myers revels in sub-“South Park” blasphemy, presenting (in one recent stunt) his sketch of the Prophet Muhammad as a cow-pig hybrid excited about “raping a 9-year-old girl.”

And though science bloggers of all stripes are jumping to defend science blogging, and to insist that Heffernan has it wrong (posts at Neuron Culture, WordYard, NeuroDojo, The Thoughtful Animal, Deltoid, A Blog Around the Clock, Pharnygula, Mike the Mad Biologist), Knight Science Journalism Tracker, Brian Switek, and EvolutionBlog; It’s Not a Lecture and Uncertain Principlies say some similar things to here), there is enough ring of truth in what she says.

As Bora has well-described in discussing ScienceBlogs, PepsiGate, and his departure from Seed, science bloggers are now part of the media. I recall very distinctly the thrill of building an audience, of realizing we had an audience beyond the classroom and a small group of colleagues. One way to take that is, yes, scholarship means something! Another is, I mean something! Popularity and arrogance can inflate our own commentary.

Heffernan’s reaction to the content and style of ScienceBlogs came from an outsider’s perspective. As she writes in a comment at Neuron Culture:

I have no training in science. My surprise at ScienceBlogs was akin to the surprise a scientist who might feel if he audited a PhD seminar on Wallace Stevens. Why aren’t they talking about “Anecdote of the Jar”?! Why are they talking about how “misogyny intrinsic to the modernist project”? I saw political axe-grinding bring the humanities almost to a standstill in the 1990s. I thought science was supposed to be above that!

In one sense it’s not at all surprising, science is as political as anything else. But her expectation, and her disappointment, is also part of the story:

With notable exceptions, blogging, as a form, seems to me to have calcified. Many bloggers who started strong 3-5 years ago have gotten stuck in grudge matches. This is even more evident on political blogs than on science blogs. In fact, after being surprised to find the same cycles of invective on ScienceBlogs that appear on political blogs (where they’re well documented), I started to think the problem might be with the form itself.

Grudge matches and invective make for high popularity in our society today. Heffernan’s done some of that herself in kicking up a hornet’s nest from on high. But what she wrote, and why, also deserves attention.

Science does have its problems at multiple levels. Greg took on medioce and bigoted science blogging in Language extinction ain’t no big thing?. I took on the Netporn/FanFiction Survey controversy in Sex, Lies and IRB Tape. Other blogs also do critical inquiry, from Mind Hacks and The Neurocritic on the science side to Somatosphere and Open Anthropology on the anthropology side. But Heffernan adds a new dimension, calling out people who have let themselves get corrupted by being able to shout and undercut and slander without much critique from those who know better.

I do think she misses the point that the problems at ScienceBlogs have been building over time, and that the decision by many bloggers to leave is their own way to protest and to critique what has happened at one of the dominant places in science blogging. They took action. But science is also about discourse by people. Blogs are now one of the most prominent ways that scholars engage in discourse among themselves, with students, and with the wider public. And there Heffernan takes on the role of Marcellus in Shakespeare:

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

6 thoughts on “Virginia Heffernan vs. ScienceBlogs

  1. Perhaps the problem is that science bloggers are still talking primarily amongst themselves. They seem to have a tendency to forget that the sort of careless invective, profanity, flaming attacks, and goofy nom de plumes regularly countenanced on blogs is considered rude, or bad form, or needlessly discourteous in most other forms of print media. That’s part of the blogosphere’s charm, of course, but also potentially part of its undoing.

  2. I make an effort to restrict my blogging to science, particularly that of my small field (which I actually have a chance at genuinely comprehending, and maybe even making a comment or two about). However, every once in a blue moon, I’ll ramble about something ‘meta’, eg. various wars in the blogosphere, or some political controversy. Mostly as a bit of a self-therapeutic thought dump. I try to suppress those posts (and don’t post them under ResearchBlogging or anything) and just have them explicitly as casual ramblings for the few people who may know me well enough, and of little interest to anyone else. And then get back to proper blogging.

    Now, pop quiz: Which of the two post categories invariably attracts a swarm of random outside readers and gets retweeted and argued over?

    Answer: Definitely not the science posts.

    Even after I go out of my way to nearly ‘hide’ the post.

    If you stay on topic, you’re not going to get very much traffic compared to ultra-controversial politically-loaded bitchfests like many SciBlogs have become. Pharyngula rarely talks about science (and when PZ Myers does post a piece or two, they’re often not as thoughtful/accurate as I’d like a science post to be…), and look how popular it is.

    I guess the reality is, and it is in no way exclusive to the blogging genre, people like reading controversial stuff. It allows them to blast their own opinions (like I’m doing right now ^^) with very little preparation or training. This is why such epic volumes of stuff are produced on celebrity gossip, politically-contentious subjects and putting down ‘the enemy’. Hardcore academic work itself is more difficult to follow, and even harder to participate in. It requires much training in order to sniff out the various controversies and arguments within some arcane field (and then it gets fun for some of the same reasons tabloids are fun…)

    I do sense a bit of the Two Cultures rift in your and Heffernan’s post. At one point, I was very keen on vertical integration, and optimistic about a joint science-humanities discourse. Then I looked into it further, and turns out it’s just scientists and humanists talking past each other and not taking any time to really understand what the other is saying.

    Then again, monism and dualism/pluralism are intrinsically irreconcilable views, sadly. That difference is perhaps at the core of the Two Cultures divide…

    It seems much of the communication in the world consists of people talking AT each other…

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