A Blog Around The Clock

The Shock Value of Science Blogs

There was a good reason why the form and format, as well as the rhetoric of the scientific paper were instituted the way they were back in the early days of scientific journals. Science was trying to come on its own and to differentiate itself from philosophy, theology and lay literature about nature. It was essential to develop a style of writing that is impersonal, precise, sharply separating data from speculations, and that lends itself to replication of experiments.

The form and format of a scientific paper has evolved towards a very precise and very universal state that makes scientist-to-scientist communication flawless. And that is how it should be, and at least some elements of style and form (if not format) will remain once the scientific paper breaks down spatially and temporally and becomes a dynamic ongoing communication – clarity and precision will always be important.

But that is strictly technical communication between scientists in the same research field. How about communication between scientists in far-away fields, between scientists and lay audience, or among the educated lay-people? How about communication between scientific colleagues outside of peer-reviewed papers? This is where we are seeing the biggest changes right now and not everyone’s happy. And the debate is reminiscent of the debate in mainstream journalism.

Until pretty recently, the informal communication between scientists was limited to Letters To The Editor of scientific journals, conferences and invited seminars. In all three of those venues, the formal rhetoric of science remained. Fine, but….

Part of training in the academia is training in rhetoric. As you go up the ladder of academic science, you are evaluated not just by the quality of your research (or teaching, in some places), but also in how well you mastered the formalized kabuki dance of the use of Scientese language. The mastery of Scientese makes one part of the Inside club. It makes one identifiable as the Member of this club. The Barbarians at the Gate are recognizable by their lack of such mastery – or by refusal to use it. And it is essential for the Inside Club to make sure that the Barbarians remain at the Gate and are never allowed inside.

Academic science is a very hierarchical structure in which one climbs up the ladder by following some very exact steps. Yes, you can come into it from the outside, class-wise, but you have to start from the bottom and follow those steps “to the T” if you are to succeed. But those formal steps were designed by Victorian gentlemen scientists, thus following those steps turns one into a present-time Victorian gentleman scientist. But not everyone can or wants to do this, yet some people who refuse are just as good as scientists as the folks inside the club. If you refuse to dance the kabuki, you will be forever kept outside the Gate.

The importance of mastery of kabuki in one’s rise through the hierarchy also means that some people get to the top due to their skills at glad-handling the superiors and putting down the competitors with formalized language, not the quality of their research or creativity of their thought. Those who rose to the top due to being good at playing the game know, deep inside, they do not deserve that high position on merit alone. And they will be the loudest defenders of the system as it has historically been – they know if the changes happen, and people get re-evaluated for merit again, they will be the first to fall. This is the case in every area (mainstream journalism, business, politics, etc.), not just academic science.

Insistence on using the formalized kabuki dance in science communication is the way to keep the power relations intact. Saying “don’t be angry” is the code for “use the rhetoric at which I excel so I can destroy you more easily and protect my own spot in the hierarchy”. It is an invitation to the formal turf, where those on the inside have power over those who cannot or will not use the kabuki dance. This has always been the way to keep women, minorities and people from developing countries outside the club, waiting outside the Gate. If, for reasons of your gender, race, nationality or class you are uncomfortable doing the kabuki dance, every time you enter the kabuki contest you will lose and the insider will win. The same applies outside science, e.g., to mainstream journalism and politics.

This is why some people in the academic community rant loudly against science bloggers. If they cannot control the rhetoric, they fear, often rightly, that they will lose. Outside their own turf, they feel vulnerable. And that is a Good Thing.

The debates about “proper” language exist on science blogs themselves. See this and this for recent examples (the very best discussion was on this post which is now mysteriously missing). In response I wrote:

We here at Sb are often accused of being cliquish and insular. But if you look at our 70+ blogs and dig through the archives, you will see that we rarely comment on each other’s blogs – most (99%?) of the comments come from outside readers. Also, most of our links point to outside of Sb. On the other hand, NN [Nature Network] is specifically designed to be a community (not a platform for independent players) and almost all of the comments there are from each other. Thus, it is easy for them to maintain a high level of politeness there (this is not a bad thing – this is how they designed it on purpose). It is much harder to harness the hordes of pharyngulites that spill over to all of our blogs – and I do not mind them at all, I think they make the debate spirited and in a way more honest by bypassing superficial niceness and going straight to the point. This may also have something to do with NN bloggers mainly being in the academia, while a large proportion of SciBlings are ex-academia, journalists, artists, etc. with a different rhetoric. The rhetoric of academia is a very formalized kabuki dance, while the rhetoric of the blogosphere has shed all formalities and is much more reminiscent to the regular everyday oral conversation.

Remember the Roosevelts on Toilets saga? The biggest point of contention was the suggestion by the authors of the paper to the bloggers to move the discussion away from blogs to a more formal arena of letters to the editor. We, the bloggers, fiercely resisted this, for the reasons I spelled above – in the letters to the editor, the Insiders have power over the Outsiders because it is their turf. No, if we want to have a non-kabuki, honest discussion, we will have it out here on the blogs, using our rhetoric, because the honest language of the modern Web places everyone on the even ground – it does not matter who you are, what degrees you have, or how well you’ve learned to dance the kabuki: it is what you say, the substance, that counts. This is why being pseudonymous online works, while academia requires full names and degrees. The Web evaluates you directly, by what you write. The academia uses “tags” – your name and degree – to evaluate you. The academia is in the business of issuing credentials, the stand-ins for quality. The credentials are rough approximations of quality – more often then not they work fine, but they are not 100% foolproof. And if one is insecure about one’s own quality, one would insist on using credentials instead of quality. The use of “proper” rhetoric is, as I said above, a good quick-and-dirty way to recognize credentials.

During the Roosevelt saga, I wrote this post very, very carefully, with a specific purpose in mind. First, I went to great effort to explain the science at length and as simply, clearly and conclusively as possible. This performed several functions for me: first, to establish my own credentials, second, to make my readers understand the science and thus be on “my side” in the comments, and third, to make sure I was as complete about science as possible so as to not have to talk about science at all in the comments. Apart from science, I also included several snarky comments about the authors which served as bait – I wanted them to come and post comments. And they bit. Go read the comment thread there to see what was happening. The author insisted on discussing science. I insisted on refusing to talk about science (to him, I did respond a little bit to some other commenters) and to talk about rhetoric instead.

But first, in a comment I posted even before the authors showed up, in order to set the stage for what I wanted, I wrote this:

In an earlier post, burried deep inside, is this thought of mine:

The division of scientists into two camps as to understanding of the Web is obvious in the commentary on PLoS ONE articles (which is my job to monitor closely). Some scientists, usually themselves bloggers, treat the commentary space as a virtual conference – a place where real-time oral communication is written down for the sake of historical record. Their comments are short, blunt and to the point. Others write long treatises with lists of references. Even if their conclusions are negative, they are very polite about it (and very sensitive when on the receiving end of criticism). The former regard the latter as dishonest and thin-skinned. The latter see the former as rude and untrustworthy (just like in journalism). In the future, the two styles will fuse – the conversation will speed up and the comments will get shorter, but will still retain the sense of mutual respect (i.e., unlike on political blogs, nobody will be called an ‘idiot’ routinely). It is important to educate the users that the commentary space on TOPAZ-based journals is not a place for op-eds, neither it is a blog, but a record of conversations that are likely to be happening in the hallways at conferences, at lab meetings and journal clubs, preserved for posterity for the edification of students, scientists and historians of the future.

What happened on Dr.Isis’ blog is very similar – a clash of two cultures. I think that the picture of the Teddy Bear on the potty was a clever and funny shorthand for your point. If you did it about something I published, I’d laugh my ass off. But I can see how the uptight strain of the scientists would balk at it. It is them, though, who need to get up to speed on the changed rhetoric of science. The straight-laced, uber-formal way of writing in science is on its way out.

The rhetoric, even after it completely modernizes, will still have four concentric circles: the paper itself will always be more formal, especially the Materials/Methods and Results sections due to the need for precision; the letters to the editor will remain pretty formal, but not as formal as they are now; the comments on the paper itself will be still less formal but still polite; the commentary on the trackbacked blogs will be freewheeling, funny and to-the-point, just like yours was, not mealy-mouthing with politeness on the surface and destructive hatred underneath, but honest and straightforward. So, if it is crap, what better way to say it than with a picture of a Teddy Bear on a potty – much more lighthearted and polite than saying it politely, and less devastating for the paper’s authors as it takes their mistake lightly instead of trying to destroy their reputation forever.

The point that both Dr.Isis and I made is that the paper is neat, experimental method sound, data are good, but the interpretation is crap. Now, having a couple of crappy paragraphs in an otherwise good paper is not the end of the world. A paper is not some kind of granite monument with The Truth writ in stone. It is becoming a living document (with comments on the paper and tracbacked blogs), and it has always been a part of a greater living document – the complete literature of a field. That is how science works.

It is hard to know which paper will persist and which one will perish in the future, what sentence will turn out to be a gem of prophetic wisdom, and which one is crap. People publish a lot of stuff, some better than other.

Making a mistake in one paper is not the end of one’s career. But many people perceive criticism as if they are just about to be sent out to join a leper colony. This is, in part, due to the formal rhetoric of science: outwardly polite, but underneath it is an attempt to destroy the person. In comparison, a light-hearted joke with a Teddy Bear acknowledges the failability of humans, allows for everyone to make a mistake and move on (we all shit, don’t we?). It is actually much more normal, and much less dangerous for one’s career to receive such a funny form of criticism than a formal-looking destruction of all our work and our personna.

In the next comment I did the one and only hat-tip to science, then moved onto the territory I wanted – rhetoric (many comments, so go and read them all now). As a result, Dr. Janszky grokked it – and we’ll probably see more of him in the blogosphere in the future. The reason he grokked it is because he is confident in his own qualities – he can change the rhetoric and tone and still not lose the debate because he knows what he’s talking about. Those who know they do not have the quality, would just have ranted harder and harder, complaining about the tone. Dr. Janszky adopted the bloggy tone in the comments right then and there. Which was a victory for everybody.

The informal rhetoric of blogs is a form of subversion – breaking the Gate and letting the Barbarians in (while not allowing quacks and Creationist to hitch a ride inside as well – which is why so many science bloggers focus on those potential free-riders and parasites). What we are doing is leveling the playing field, pointing out the inherent dishonesty of the formalized rhetoric, and calling a space a spade. This is a way to make sure that smart, thoughtful people get heard even if they did not have a traditional career trajectory, or refuse to play the Inside club games. If some of the insiders fall down in the process, that’s a good thing – they probably did not deserve to be up in the first place.

Different bloggers do this in different ways. We can use a brilliant, but snarky use of English (PZ Myers), or texting/LOLCat snark (Abbie), or awe and reverence for the great scientists of old (Mo), or sexual innuendo (SciCurious), or shoes (Dr.Isis), or a light-hearted sense of humor (Ed or Darren), or excessive use of profanity (PhysioProf). What we all do is write in unusual, informal ways. We want to shock. We feel there are many people out there who need a jolt, an injection of reality. We do it by using informal language. And this can be very powerful – just see how the dinosaurs squirm when they read some of our posts! But that’s the point. We are testing them: if, like Dr. Janszky, you “get it”, this means that you have the balls, which means you are confident about your own qualities independent from your credentials. If you keep ranting about “dirty, angry bloggers”….what are you so insecure about? Why are you so afraid of being shown a fraud if you are not? Or, are you?

Another point about blogs, which I alluded above already, is the time-frame. This is a very important point that is often forgotten in the scientists vs. bloggers “let’s be polite” debates. In the formal arenas (Letters, conferences, etc.), where formal language is used, the game some people play is to use an outwardly seemingly polite language to write or say something that is designed to destroy a career. Often in multiple places over a stretch of time. On blogs, when we snarkily attack you, our purpose is to teach a lesson (more to our readers than the scientists in question who may not even know the blog post was written). In other words, it is a one-time thing that is designed to correct a single error, not an attempt at destroying a career.

For good recent examples of the way scientists use the formal venues as well as formal language to destroy each other, see this and this (I have seen more on PLoS ONE, but don’t want to draw your attention to those right now, for professional reasons – keeping my job).

I post 8.2 posts per day on this blog, on a large variety of topics. Do you really think I have the time, energy and interest to study in great detail the life-time achievements of everyone who did something wrong on the Internet? Of course not. I see an article that says something stupid and I shoot a post that shows how stupid it is, so the readers, especially if the deconstruction of stupidity requires some expertise I may have and most people don’t, can see why that particular argument is wrong. Then I move on to the next post on some completely different topic. I have forgotten about your existence in about a nanosecond after publishing that post. I have no interest in destroying your career, but I understand that you are touchy – the life in academia, with its poisonous kabuki game, has trained you to defend yourself against every single little criticism because, underneath the veneer of civility is the career-damaging attack by someone powerful who is hell-bent on destroying you. We don’t do that on blogs. We don’t care enough to do that (unless you are a dangerous peddler of pseudoscience or medical quackery). We want to educate the lay audience and have fun doing it. I have no idea if everything else you have written before and after is brilliant and I don’t care – I think that this one stupid paragraph you wrote is good blogging material, amusing, edifying and useful to use to educate the lay audience. You are NOT the target personally. Your stupid argument is. And I don’t care if that was your one-off singular mistake in life, or an unusually bad moment for you. So, don’t take it personally. This is not academia. We are, actually, honest here on the intertubes, and you need to learn to trust us.

The attempts at character assassinations within academia, by using the formalized kabuki language by the powerful and forcing the powerless to adopt the same and thus be brought to slaughter, do not happen only in print. They also happen in person. Read this and this for a recent example of a senior researcher trying to publicly destroy a younger, female colleague at a meeting. And he was wrong. But he was powerful and intimidating. I wish the young woman responded by going outside of formal kabuki dance, shocking the audience in one way or another, giving all the present colleagues a jolt, making them listen and perhaps notice what is happening. Or, if she was shy, I wish some senior male colleague did the same for her and put the old geezer in his place. I wrote a comment:

“Tone it down” and “Why are you so angry?” are typical sleazy tactics used by a person in power over a person not in power. It was used against people of other races, against women, against gays, against atheists – this is the way to make their greivances silent and perpetuate the status quo, the power structure in which they are on the top of the pecking order. The entire formal, convoluted, Victorian-proper discourse one is supposed to use in science is geared towards protecting the current power structure and the system that perpetuates it. Keeping the dissenters down and out. Bur sometimes, anger, or snark, or direct insult, are the jolt that the system needs and it will have to come from the people outside the power structure, and it would have to occur often and intensely until they start paying attention.

And then, there is the area in between scientists and lay audience. The job of translating Scientese into English (or whatever is the local language) has traditionally been done by professional science journalists. Unfortunately, most science journalists (hats off to the rare and excellent exceptions) are absolutely awful about it. They have learned the journalistic tools, but have no background in science. They think they are educated, but they only really know how to use the language to appear they are educated. Fortunately for everyone, the Web is allowing scientists to speak directly to the public, bypassing, marginalizing and pushing into extinction the entire class of science “journalists” because, after all, most scientists are excellent communicators. And those who are, more and more are starting to use blogs as a platform for such communication.

The problem is, the professional science journalists also love to put down the blogs and use the paternalistic “tone it down” argument. But, unlike the political journalists who are incapable of seeing the obvious (stuck too far inside Cheney’s rectum to see what we all could see?), the science journalists have the added problem of not having the expertise for their job in the first place. In politics, everyone with the brain, not just journalists, could see that excuses for going to Iraq were lame. But in science journalism, there exist out there people with real expertise – the scientists themselves – who now have the tools and means to bypass you and make you obsolete because you cannot add any value any more.

To the list that includes MSM “journalists” aka curmudgeouns like Richard Cohen, Sarah Boxer, Andrew Keen, Lee Siegel, Michael Skube, Neil Henry and many others, we can now add curmudgeounly science journalists George Johnson and John Horgan as well – just listen to this!!!!! Yes go an listen before you come back. If you can stand it. But if I suffered through it, you can, too. I am a pretty calm kind of guy, but listening to that “dialogue” filled me with rage – I felt insulted, my intelligence insulted, and my friends insulted. Frankly, I’ve heard smarter science-related conversations from the drunks in rural Serbian bars.

I’ve been in this business (both science and science communication) for a long time, but I have never heard of George Johnson until today. From what I saw in that clip, I have not missed anything. Where does his smugness come from then? As for John Horgan, I’ve heard of him – he earned his infamy when he published – and was instantly skewered and laughed at by anyone with brains – his book “The End of Science”, arguably one of the worst and most misguided books about science (outside of Creationist screeds) ever. Where is his humbleness after such a disaster? Why is he not hiding in the closet, but instead shows up in public and appears – smug. Some people just have no self-awareness how stupid they appear when they behave as if they have authority yet they don’t and it’s obvious. What is it about professional journalists that makes them have illusions they are educated? “No, I am not a scholar but I play one on TV” turns into “Since I can transcribe and read smart stuff I must be really smart myself”.

Luckily, bloggers have no qualms about defending themselves – please read this gorgeous smack-down by Abbie, this older post by Ed in which he explains exactly what he meant, and perhaps this old post of mine which also, in a circuitous way, predicts the extinction of science journalistic dinosaurs.

But perhaps I shouldn’t be that nasty to Johnson and Horgan? After all, my blogging schtick is niceness. This makes it very easy for me to destroy someone – on those rare occasions when someone like me, renowned for endless patience, flies off the handle, people sit up and pay attention. If I use profanity to describe someone, that one probably richly deserves it. I know I have to use this power with prudence. If I attack someone full-blast, people will tend to believe me, as I rarely do that kind of stuff. And if you subsequently Google that name, my blogpost about him/her is likely to be the #1 hit on the search, or in the top ten.

Perhaps Johnson and Horgan are actually nice and smart guys. They may be nice to their wives and kids. Perhaps they wrote, 30 years ago, something really smart. But I have no interest in digging around for that. I want to finish this post and move on. And after watching this movie, I really have no motivation to search for anything else by these two guys as it appears to be a waste of my time. It does not appear to me like a bad-day, one-off mistake that everyone sometimes makes. It is 30 minutes of amazing ignorance and arrogance at display – probably sufficient material to make me doubt I’d ever find anything smart penned by them in the past, so why should I bother with them at all? I can probably evaluate their qualifications quite accurately from these 30 minutes and safely conclude they equal zero. Their “angry bloggers” shtick was the first give-away they know deep inside they are irrelevant and on their way out. Their subsequent chat about science was amateurish at best, no matter how smug their facial expressions at the time.

Perhaps if we remove those middle-men and have scientists and the public start talking to each other directly, then we will have the two groups start talking to each other openly, honestly and in an informal language that is non-threatening (and understood as such) by all. The two sides can engage and learn from each other. The people who write ignorant, over-hyping articles, the kinds we bloggers love to debunk (by being able to compare to the actual papers because we have the background) are just making the entire business of science communication muddled and wrong. Please step aside.

Update: Brian, Greg, Ed, Dr.Isis, Mike Brotherton, Hank and Larry chime in on this discussion as well. More: Alex, Chris Mooney, Mike, Chad, Eric Wolff, Stephanie and Tom Levenson, Sabine and Tom again.

Comments

  1. #1 Ed Yong
    December 21, 2008

    Well said, that man. I love that this post is only just slightly shorter than your entire sidebar ;-)

  2. #2 ERV
    December 21, 2008

    I only listened to the few minutes they directly spoke about me, maybe thats why Im not this upset. *hug Bora*

    Though now I am angry they upset you…

  3. #3 DNLee
    December 21, 2008

    I can relate to your sentiments. I routinely use lay language, humor, and lots of slang and colloquil story-telling to explain science concepts to people. I often get frowns from the more shee-shee members of the faculty, but I don’t see any of them explaining (or trying to explain) science to urban students and audiences in a way that doesn’t come off as confusing or insulting.

    I accept that it earns me some frowns but I know it doesn’t diminish my expertise or credentials. I can speack scientiese with the best of them, but what’s the point if the the very audiences we claim to ‘serve’ (students and general public) can’t understand us.

    I’m glad NSF requires broader impact. Alot of those shee-shees are eating humble pie and calling me for my “science-translation” services.

  4. #4 Stephanie Z
    December 21, 2008

    When I can stop flinching at journalists’ warped grammar and usage (designed specifically to save column inches), I might begin to think they’re relevant to the electronic age.

  5. #5 magetoo
    December 21, 2008

    On the Blogging Heads thing:

    I was as ticked off by George’s rant as anyone, so it feels a bit odd having to defend the John & George duo, but I have been following the bloggingheads diavlogs for some time, and I’ll have to say that it was very uncharacteristic.

    Can’t say much about their writing unfortunately, as I haven’t read any, but it doesn’t seem obvious that it has to be all bad – George in particular has come off as knowing what he’s talking about in the past, at least when it comes to things that he has spent some time working on (see the episode where he speaks about his book “The ten most beautiful experiments” for example).

    Many of the more recent conversations between the two have unfortunately spent most of the time treading water, though.

  6. #6 Katherine Haxton
    December 22, 2008

    The NN post on fair play can be found here: http://network.nature.com/hubs/boston/blog/2008/07/08/what-is-fair-play-in-the-blogocommentosphere

    They’ve been tweaking the format of NN.

  7. #7 Bob O'H
    December 22, 2008

    I feel I’ll have to blog on this – I see the issues slightly differently (not necessarily that we disagree, but I think there are some interesting subtleties). For now, a couple of small points:

    But those formal steps were designed by Victorian gentlemen scientists, thus following those steps turns one into a present-time Victorian gentleman scientist

    Is this historically true? My impression is that the professionalization of science and the formalization of the career structure is more recent: a lot of it post-war.

    Saying “don’t be angry” is the code for “use the rhetoric at which I excel so I can destroy you more easily and protect my own spot in the hierarchy”. It is an invitation to the formal turf, where those on the inside have power over those who cannot or will not use the kabuki dance. This has always been the way to keep women, minorities and people from developing countries outside the club, waiting outside the Gate.

    Huh? Science has had a structure that has been exclusionary , but language? Scientific rhetoric is, like any professional language, slightly artificial, and needs to be learned. The exclusion of women and minorities from learning science (including its rhetoric) has certainly gone on, but using language to do it?

    The only way I can see that that makes any sense is if you’re saying that women and minorities are less able to learn scientese, which is surely sexist and racist. I would say that they have not learned the language because they were excluded from being educated in it, so the exclusion happened before the professional language was taught. Anyone, whether male, female, white, blue, or a fetching shade of turquoise, would be excluded on the basis of language, but the inequalities had already been set in place.

    Yes, language can be used as a marker for “us” vs. “not us”, but is there any evidence that this is what was used to exclude some segments of society from science?

  8. #8 Blake Stacey
    December 22, 2008

    On the occasions when I’ve crossed paths with the writing of George Johnson, he seemed a reasonable and competent fellow. (I recall he had one of the better write-ups on the Bogdanov Affair, for example.) Horgan? Well, ah. . . it’s been said before.

  9. #9 Shevonne
    December 22, 2008

    Amazing post. Definitely a must-read for everyone. As a Technical Writer, I know the importance of having writing that any person is able to read. It’s interesting how scientific writing has evolved.

  10. #10 Jim Lippard
    December 22, 2008

    Blake: I haven’t read Horgan’s _The End of Science_, but his _Rational Mysticism_ is very good.

  11. #11 Coriolis
    December 22, 2008

    While I agree with most of what you have to say I don’t know much about this formal dancing business that you allude to – I don’t see much evidence of ultra-formalism in casual scientist to scientist communication. Perhaps as a graduate student I haven’t been in the type of circles where people don’t call BS all the time ;). Sure people write very formally in journals, but most professors aren’t above a shouting match or a few choice “fuck”‘s occasionally, some more so than others ;).

    This all reminds me of perhaps my favorite quote from Dirac:

    “In science, the goal is to explain, in a way that everyone can understand it, something that no one has understood before. In poetry, it is the exact opposite.”

  12. #12 Jennifer Ouellette
    December 22, 2008

    I was actually kinda shocked by George’s outburst; I know him as a decent man and a good science journalist; he’s written a couple of excellent books. It’s rare to see him cross the line into personal attack like that, which is a shame, because there was a valid point buried beneath all that invective, just as Abbie made a valid point about issues with traditional science journalism — albeit in a way that highlighted her naivete about journalism as a field. And as Ed Yong pointed out in his blog post on the matter, neither he nor Abbie deserved to be dismissed as “interlopers.” That was just uncalled for. Ed is one of the most promising young science writers out there, and older journalists should be encouraging the next generation, not smacking them down.

    Mostly, I think the two sides are talking past each other at the moment, zeroing in on hot-button phrases and responding with more emotion than anything else. As a science writer and a blogger, who has been involved in both traditional print and online formats, allow me to carefully tread the middle ground (which no doubt will damn me in the eyes of everyone).

    1. Your average science “news” story is, all too often, not sufficient to convey the information in any kind of meaningful context: space limitations see to that. And the “news hook” orientation of traditional journalism means that we have to justify to editors why a story should be reported — making them vulnerable to the over-hyped headlines Abbie rightly complained about.

    2. Reporters, however, DO NOT WRITE THEIR OWN HEADLINES (nor do they choose photos or write the captions), so blaming them for that is a little unfair. They are also at the whims of editors, who can notoriously slash, rewrite or otherwise deform one’s copy into something barely recognizable when it finally appears in print.

    3. This is why I started my blog, Cocktail Party Physics: no matter how curtailed or mangled a story I wrote gets when it finally appears, I can correct it on the blog, presenting the version I would have preferred to write had there been more space, and were I able to choose my own slant. It also frees me from the tyranny of the 24/7 news cycle, so I can write about whatever piques my interest at any given time, regardless of whether there’s a “news hook.” And I can explore various contexts for the topic du jour.

    4. So yeah, blogs are an awesome supplement to the usual outlets for scientific information. I’m a big proponent of them, and for the way they give a voice to everyone. It’s great that scientists can now speak directly — even if most of us are frankly already preaching to the converted. (People who are already interested in science and reasonably well informed make up the bulk of our readership — you know it’s true!)

    5. Where the problems come in is when folks move beyond the rational and justifiable criticisms of science journalism and make sweeping judgmental statements about how scientists are the only ones truly qualified to write well about science (with the occasional grudging nods to the “few” journalists who “actually do a decent job” of it). This is understandably interpreted as an attack by many of us who work very hard in the field of science writing. I actually HAVE been told that I have no business trying to write about physics; I’ve encountered a profound lack of respect for my skills and training, and ignorance that there’s more to science writing than simply dutifully getting the facts right as they are dictated from the Gods of Science.

    6. And while it pains me to take issue with Bora, whom I respect very much, phrases like “The Web is alllowing scientists to speak directly to the public, bypassing, marginalizing and pushing into extinction the entire class of ‘journalists’ [note scare quotes]” and how the blogosphere will “make you obsolete because you cannot add any value any more” — well, that’s not helping matters. Sure, traditional print journalism is dying; it’s moving online; and blogs will most certainly be a big part of the model that eventually emerges. But they won’t replace good science journalism; they will continue to augment it, and hold science journalists accountable as need be. We are not going to be “obsolete,” we’ll just be working in a new, improved (I hope) venue. We CAN still add value. I think my blog adds value to the discussion, precisely because I am NOT a professional scientist. If only scientists are considered “qualified” to write about and discuss science, then science will only be discussed among scientists — and let’s face it, science is already marginalized enough!

    I hope, when tempers cool and the heated rhetoric dies down, both sides will be able to see some validity in the other’s viewpoint.

  13. #13 Laelaps
    December 22, 2008
  14. #14 Abel Pharmboy
    December 22, 2008

    I know that it’s too late for entries but I would absolutely love to see this post and Jen-Luc’s comment together in kicking off the Open Laboratory Anthology 2008. Bora shows himself as the granddaddy of science blogging and Jennifer shows herself as the superb science journalist that she is. Well done.

  15. #15 DrugMonkey
    December 22, 2008

    It’s the news cyle…..and this pesky editors….you are just naive. It isn’t our fault, waaah. Nice try JO.

    Look, I’m willing to believe there are good science journalists. But there are systematic problems with misrepresentation and just about every scientist I know is of the mindset “don’t talk to journalists because they will misrepresent you. Now why is that? We are not all that paranoid as a group, likely there are some common experiences talking. Maybe the journalists of repute should focus on housecleaning rather than hitching about those meddlin’ kids…..?

  16. #16 Isis the Scientist
    December 22, 2008

    I think my blog adds value to the discussion, precisely because I am NOT a professional scientist. If only scientists are considered “qualified” to write about and discuss science, then science will only be discussed among scientists — and let’s face it, science is already marginalized enough!

    But, can none of you see the absolute blatant bullshit of this statement? The idea that scientists are only qualified to write to an audience of other scientists and that we need journalists as translators is only perpetuating the problem. Scientists are viewed as inaccessible and unintelligible. Would you want to give taxpayer dollars to people doing work that they can’t explain to you? And then tell them that it is not their place to try to explain it to you?

    Frankly, I am tired of being told that I, as a basic scientist, can not communicate. The fact of the matter is that scientists are in the dialog and need to participate in a way that is productive. Yes, journalists offer a unique perspective on the science, but they can’t offer the only perspective.

  17. #17 Coturnix
    December 22, 2008

    Thanks, Abel. Of course, this post was a stream-of-consciousness rant: first half was written in a state of utmost hunger, the second in the state of ultimate fullness (brisket, latkes, etc.), and thus would require serious editing and even re-writing. It is also dependent on the context of previous posts, some of which I linked to, which modulate it to some extent.

    But it was provocative, in the sense that it provoked some great responses here, as well as on Laelaps and Greg Laden’s blog, in the comments on ERV’s post, and it was also shared a lot by folks on Twitter and FriendFeed where others commented as well. It was designed to provoke, of course. If I added all the needed caveats, examples, exceptions, etc., it would have been even longer.

    But that is also part of the point – blog posts are often one-off pieces written often off-the-cuff in a moment of inspiration without too much delibaration. One sees an interesting article, blog-post, cartoon or video, posts it in a hurry with some snarky comments and moves on.

    Sometimes one follows a theme/topic for a long time and writes often about it – in those cases, one wants the new readers to go into the archives to get the context in order to avoid constant repetition. In such cases the blogger knows a lot about the topic and the other people involved.

    In other cases, it is something on a tangent and blogger makes no effort to look deeper (how many cool topics you can really get deep into in a lifetime?) yet this does not mean the blogger should not post it.

    Finally, a blog post is not the end but the start of a conversation – a good blog posts does not cross all the Ts and dot all the Is, but leaves holes for readers and commenters to fill.

    Anyway, the point of being nasty to George and John was more to give them a taste of their own medicine and to let them know how they appear to others, not to destroy them. Much more interesting question, for me, is the role of language in preservation of existing power structures. Why does the current scientific kabuki make women and minorities uncomfortable, for instance. And I would love to see the discussion move in that direction, if possible.

  18. #18 Greg Laden
    December 22, 2008

    “which no doubt will damn me in the eyes of everyone”

    Damn the damnable damners, I say, we appreciate your weighing in!

    J: Anyone who feels you should not write about physics has obviously not read your excellent book on … what was that? Oh, right, physics.

    Your point about the headlines is exactly what I meant when I made my point about checking back with sources. It is not really OK to a) think you are a journalist when you are in fact not and b) make highly inaccurate criticisms of the field. At the same time, many of Abbie and Ed’s points are what many of us feel about science reporting (I use the term reporting and not journalism here for a reason).

    Anyway, excellent comment. You are the perfect person to come in at this point given your training and experience.

  19. #19 Comrade PhysioProf
    December 22, 2008

    Journalists need to stop sucking so bad and they will get a lot more respect.

  20. #20 daedalus2u
    December 22, 2008

    Excellent analysis of the problem and how blogging will replace non-expert science journalism. It isn’t just “blogging”; it is blogging that allows comments without editing them for content that the blog author doesn’t like. If a blog does not allow criticism, it can’t be a scientific blog.

    I think the NY Times recognizes this and now links to sb.

    Jennifer, you are correct, there is more to science journalism than reporting the facts right, but if the facts are reported wrong, the article is a failure. There is plenty of space for journalists who know what they are talking about. It is the essence of professionalism to know the limits of your expertise. If a journalist feels they can write about something they do not understand they are exceeding the limits of their expertise. It is not that only “scientists” are qualified to write about science, but that only people who understand the science are qualified to write about that science. The same is true for everything. If you don’t understand something, all you can do is BS about it.

    If science journalists must submit themselves to the whims of “editor review” (note the scare quotes), their product can be no better than the whims of that editor. If it is a know-nothing editor, then it will be know-nothing headlines and know-nothing editing. If the science journalist doesn’t have enough standing with the editor to enforce at least correct facts, then what role is the science journalist actually playing? If an editor feels they can edit copy that they do not understand, they are exceeding the limits of their expertise. If editors can’t change the kabuki dance of substituting their know-nothing whims for a reporter’s facts, journalism with those types of editors is doomed.

    There is a role for journalists who can report complex news in ways that non-experts can understand without getting it wrong. There are not enough of those types of journalists in any field.

    I had a disagreement the other day with someone who wanted to accept the conclusion of what was purported to be a scientific paper when the data in the paper was wrong. I said no, if the data is wrong a scientific paper should be withdrawn. There is no such thing as a useful scientific paper with wrong data.

  21. #21 Luci
    December 22, 2008

    The winning mix for the more appetizing sci-writing includes the credibility of the writer, links to original sources, the nimbleness to jump off topic and not lose the sense of a given piece as well as writing skill. All professionals use jargon. The inter-pro shortcuts will tempt an interested reader to explore further. Leaving plenty of spaces rather than overexplaining every detail works well for all writing, as well as film, music etc.
    Bloggers here are tantalizing because the writers appear as full-blooded human beings who have broad interests keeping their main scientific fields company. Traditional media science reporters can fall to unchallenging kindergarten level approaches to keep the bosses happy. Freedom of expression here allows readers a huge space to explore and get lucky discovering new ideas and a variety of voices generously sharing hard facts and many good laughs.

  22. #22 Isis the Scientist
    December 22, 2008

    Alright, you wacky kids. Dr. Isis lays the smack down here.

    Did you think I wouldn’t?

  23. #23 Comrade PhysioProf
    December 22, 2008

    It is important to educate the users that the commentary space on TOPAZ-based journals is not a place for op-eds, neither it is a blog, but a record of conversations that are likely to be happening in the hallways at conferences, at lab meetings and journal clubs, preserved for posterity for the edification of students, scientists and historians of the future.

    This is exactly why the commentary space on TOPAZ-based journals is doomed to irrelevance. It is exactly because conversations in hallways at conferences, lab meetings, and journals clubs are ephemeral that they are uninhibited. The fact that they are preserved for posterity means that genuine conversation never can occur, and only the kind of “flag-planting” such as occurred with the PLoS ONE imprinting paper.

    excessive use of profanity (PhysioProf)

    Fuck you, asshole! Comrade PhysioProf only deploys exactly the proper amount of motherfucking profanity!

  24. #24 Coturnix
    December 22, 2008

    Excessive IS teh proper amount, wackaloon!

  25. #25 Isis the Scientist
    December 22, 2008

    All professionals use jargon

    I eat bitches who use jargon for breakfast.

  26. #26 Peggy
    December 22, 2008

    Yum, jargon!

    The biggest problem I have with most of the science “reporting” I run into is that it’s usually no more than a minimally modified press release. Maybe there is a quote from a local scientist on the topic, but usually not more than that. The fault seems to lie with both the university PR departments that put out descriptions of the latest research that have little or no similarity to the actual scientific publication and with the MSM outlets that don’t actually use science reporters. Joe Journalist who usually reports on local human interest stories almost certainly doesn’t have the background to separate the BS from the facts of a science story – and why should he? The press release has already framed the story in the catchiest way they could.

    That’s where I think science bloggers play a huge role – providing background information and calling out the BS in the MSM stories when they see it. Hopefully the general public interested in a particular story will find the blog posts by Googling. And writing in a casual style makes it that much more accessible to people who don’t have science backgrounds. I think there should be more, rather than less, informal science blogging available.

  27. #27 Stephen Curry
    December 23, 2008

    Sorry Bora – I didn’t really recognise your portrayal of science as an elaborate kabuki dance for self-promotion. Though some do play that game, they are usually well known to their colleagues and don’t need to be outed by bloggers. That’s not to deny that there’s plenty of cant out there to be named as such!

    You seem to be mainly defending the ‘robust’ style of bloggers, in particular snarkiness or rudeness, as long as it is direct and to the point. Im all for a bit of humour but I still think a respectful engagement is usually more productive. To cite a an example local to me, even Sinn Fein and the DUP had to sit down and talk to one another in the end…

    And you claim that you are usually just pointing out some error in a blog post and then move on without pronouncing judgement on the author. But that view is rather undermined by your comments at the end of your post. On the basis of a 30 minute video you opt to dismiss as worthless anything that Johnson and Horgan might have done previously. Care to defend that analysis…? It can’t be cant – can it!? ;-)

  28. #28 Stephen Curry
    December 23, 2008

    Sorry Bora – I didn’t really recognise your portrayal of science as an elaborate kabuki dance for self-promotion. Though some do play that game, they are usually well known to their colleagues and don’t need to be outed by bloggers. That’s not to deny that there’s plenty of cant out there to be named as such!

    You seem to be mainly defending the ‘robust’ style of bloggers, in particular snarkiness or rudeness, as long as it is direct and to the point. Im all for a bit of humour but I still think a respectful engagement is usually more productive. To cite a an example local to me, even Sinn Fein and the DUP had to sit down and talk to one another in the end…

    And you claim that you are usually just pointing out some error in a blog post and then move on without pronouncing judgement on the author. But that view is rather undermined by your comments at the end of your post. On the basis of a 30 minute video you opt to dismiss as worthless anything that Johnson and Horgan might have done previously. Care to defend that analysis…? It can’t be cant – can it!? ;-)

  29. #29 Coturnix
    December 23, 2008

    Oh yes I am pronouncing judgment on the author – I never said I did not. I am doing it based on a 30min snippet. Lesson: don’t go public if you are in a bad mood or jet-lagged because you will be judged by what you say. That is how the Web works, and the dinos better get used to it and be careful.

    The point is that all scientists use the kabuki dance all the time – after years of training it becomes a second nature. The formality of language, the superficial pretense of politeness with an underlying destructive intent – those are weapons used by the people Inside to guard their power-relationships, their hierarchy, and their Order against the interlopers. This is the way to put the women, minorities, etc. down.

    The value of unusual and more informal use of language is to get those folks outside of their comfort zone (that is the “shock value” – need not be a direct insult, just informal and honest), to place them on a level playing field where they cannot pull their seniority over others. Perhaps getting drawn outside their comfort zone will make them think about the system itself, their position in it, and the way the rhetoric either intentionally or inadvertently maintains the existing power structure and defends it against meritocracy/democracy.

  30. #30 Coturnix
    December 23, 2008

    The point is – those who are traditionally low on the totem poll are the ones who get to set the tone – sometimes you choose formal tone, sometimes humor, sometimes anger, whatever you feel comfortable with or whatever the situation requires. The elders, by saying “be polite”, are the problem – they are the only ones who have NO right whatsoever to tell others what tone to use, what form to use, or how polite to be.

    Thus, places where formal tone is enforced by the tribal Elders (e.g., letters to the editor) are inherently a losing place for the disenfranchised. Come out and play on the blogs with us, where everything goes, if you have the guts and if you know you can survive on knowledge and smarts alone, with no help from a string of letters behind your name, and no help from friendly editors refereeing the discussion and keeping it formal for your advantage.

  31. #31 Coturnix
    December 23, 2008

    It’s also interesting that Steffi immediately grokked it while Stephen did not. Why? Because Steffi is a woman. She watches the kabuki from the outside every day and see it for what it is.

    Most of us white, middle-aged males, no matter how much we say and think we want a more diverse academia, have no idea that the way we act and talk reinforces the traditional power structure which is very repellent to and difficult to penetrate by women, minorities, scientists without PhDs, young students, and scientists from developing countries. For them, it is obvious. We need to learn.

    The first, knee-jerk reaction when we are told by, e.g., a woman scientist that our language and behavior are discriminatory, is to get on a defensive: we are really such NiceGuysTM, so don;t be hysterical, be nice and polite, learn to play the game and all will be swell.

    It takes some open minded listening and learning. Spend some years reading feminist blogs (Shakesville, Pandagon, Echidne of the Snakes, Feministe…), blogs by female scientists (Thus Spake Zuska, Blue Lab Coats, Sciencewomen, Dr.Isis….), and blogs by white blokes who “get it”, e.g, Abel PharmBoy, DrugMonkey (if he is a he – I don’t know), PhysioProf, or Dr.Pal. Soon you’ll start noticing how the rhetoric you took for granted is actually well-designed for defending the white-male-on-top hierarchy and is preventing quality people from other groups from entering the Club without massively convoluting their own behavior and language.

  32. #32 Eric Wolff
    December 24, 2008

    Hi – I couldn’t disagree more with your points about the disappearance of journalism more, and I think I have a pretty good case:

    http://theoystersgarter.com/2008/12/24/why-we-still-need-and-will-always-need-professional-science-journalists/

  33. #33 Anon4now
    December 24, 2008

    Bora, I think you’re coming down quite hard on Stephen there, and you’re making a great assumption about females ‘getting it’ while males don’t.

    Bottom line is that rudeness is not an appropriate means of discourse in any circle. Shock tactics are not the same thing. It has nothing to do with using the language of tribal elders, or whatever fancy phrase you wish to use for ‘established practice’, it has everything to do with being able to conduct yourself as your education befits: politely and appropriately.

    You were out of line with the Roosevelt thing, and you’re overly judgemental here.

  34. #34 Stephen Curry
    December 24, 2008

    Hey Bora – way to leap to conclusions! But how about looking before you leap?

    And I’ve been sentenced to “some years reading feminist blogs…”. Not only are you judgmental, you seem to be jury-mental too…

    It’s not that I failed to “grok it” (whatever that means – I’m new to this). I took an alternative viewpoint. Disagreed with what you were saying. Tried to argue that your points were not well made.

    Again your portrayal of the whole scientific profession as a herd of power-mongers is so far off beam that I don’t know where to start. For sure it’s not perfect and the difficulties experienced by women and minorities are real (I will check out some of the blogs you mentioned, but perhaps not spend quite as long as you recommended reading them!). But unless you get off your polemical high-horse pardner and start dealing with reality and specifics, the conversation can’t begin.

    Seasons greetings!

  35. #35 Stephanie Z
    December 24, 2008

    Like Bora, I’m seeing something interesting in who does and who doesn’t understand his point about highly mannered language and behavior. From what I can tell, the people who don’t get it are the ones for whom formal scientific discourse isn’t all that different from the way “everyone” talks and acts. I’m guessing that these are the same people who hear, “You kids get off my lawn,” and never think about the implications of the “my lawn” part.

  36. #36 Coturnix
    December 24, 2008

    “…the people who don’t get it are the ones for whom formal scientific discourse isn’t all that different from the way “everyone” talks and acts…”

    Stephanie puts it the best.

    Yes, I am judgmental, because there is something serious to judge. As I said above, even those who genuinely would like to make academia more inclusive are often oblivious to the way the system, as it is set up, including the language as its most powerful weapon, protects the status quo. It is the language of white males from developed countries that is the “normal” language of science, and it in itself, makes others uncomfortable and makes it difficult for them to remain motivated to remain within such a system, let alone win in it.

  37. #37 daedalus2u
    December 24, 2008

    Stephen, you claim you don’t get it, then mischaracterize what Coturnix is saying so as to dismiss what he is saying. He never characterized “the whole scientific profession as a herd of power-mongers”. A place to start would be to accurately understand what Coturnix is actually saying and is not saying.

    By your mischaracterization you are showing us that on some level you believe that the individuals that are not “power mongers” are not part of “the whole scientific profession”. The list of woman scientists, and of male scientists who who “get it” are implicitly dismissed (by you) as not part of “the whole scientific profession”.

    How long you read the recommended blogs is up to you. The prescription was not meant as punishment, it was meant as education. When you understand where they are coming from you won’t need to read them any more. Until you do understand where they are coming from you won’t understand why you need to read them. You will just have to take the word of people who do understand them that that education is important. That is one of the things about education. Usually it is not until people understand something quite well that they learn how to use it and understand why it was useful to learn it in the first place.

    When you don’t understand a term, the usual response is to go and learn what that term means, not berate individuals using the term for using a term that the listener doesn’t understand.

    http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=grok

    The whole point of communication is to convey information that the listener doesn’t know or understand. Sometimes that requires new terms that have unique meanings and even unique shades of meaning.

  38. #38 Anon4now
    December 24, 2008

    Stephen is British, the blogs ‘prescribed’ are American. British academia is at least a decade ahead of the US in terms of equality and British society is about 25 years ahead of the US interms of cultural inclusiveness, social awareness and equality. If you really wish to ‘educate’ Stephen (and how condescending of you to even presume that is your role here), I’d suggest that you engage him in a non-hostile and non-judgemental way. You’re smacking him down when you state you want to engage people with these issues. Don’t just send him to read other blogs, put it in your own words.

  39. #39 Stephen Curry
    December 24, 2008

    @Bora – I don’t have a problem with you being judgmental but I think your judgements will be more interesting to read if you base your assessment of an individual on more than 30 mins of video chat. Do you not agree?

    @daedalus2u – I don’t think I did mischaracteize Bora’s viewpoint. He consistently and repeatedly talked about scientists engaging in a hierarchical game or kabuki dance, the main point of which (he claimed) was to seek personal advancement, often at the expense of more junior colleagues. I may have paraphrased a little. Perhaps I misunderstood what he was trying to say? In which case, he had the opportunity to provide correction. But, as I perceive his argument, I disagree with it. And I didn’t mean to dismiss anyone. All I was trying to do, I think, was to get Bora to concede that scientific professionals (even if one just considers those in the upper echelons) are a much more heterogeneous mix of individuals than he describes.

    Was my tone too snarky? If so, I apologise (though I guess I had taken permission for this from Bora!). But then perhaps that makes my point that respectful communication is likely to be the most productive in the long run. There is some value in shock, in the sense that it can sometimes get people to see things that might otherwise have been hidden from them. To that extent I agree with Bora but I think it’s possible to do shock without being rude.

    Re the meaning of ‘grok’ – is it not OK in the course of a conversation to ask one’s interlocutor to clarify what they’ve said?

    And I am forced to agree with Anon4now – your tone was a bit patronising.

    But hey – it’s Christmas – hope you have a great holiday!

  40. #40 Stephanie Z
    December 25, 2008

    …I think it’s possible to do shock without being rude.

    I think it is impossible to shock without being considered rude. Sure, one doesn’t have to engage in behavior that is widely considered rude in order to shock, but if one shocks people, whatever one did to generate the change in perspective will be considered rude by someone.

    One can be blunt–and be chided for strong-arm tactics. One can be funny–and be chastised for making light of something serious. One can be very open and honest about personal experience–and be called on the carpet for bringing everyone down.

    People don’t like having their mental worlds rearranged. Even if most would point to some trivial aspect of the communication as being rude, that’s a distraction. What they’re really objecting to is being told they need to rethink their cherished positions. There’s no way to escape the accusation of rudeness and still expose hidden truths.

  41. #41 Pascal Lapointe
    December 25, 2008

    Wow. Quite an attack on science journalists, and I am sure this guy has done some bad job. But are you really sure scientists can replace journalists? I remember at the beginning of the 1990s, people on newsgroups (does somebody here remember newsgroups? :-) and people who were creating the first primitive web pages, were saying: that,s the end of journalism. We, citizens, will be able to bring news directly to the public. Of course, they were wrong, because it is difficult when you are not paid. No matter how good you are.

    That does not mean that bloggers will not take a larger part of the newspaper audience. I am sure they will, in science and in other topics.

    But they are limits to what people in academia, who have other jobs, can do on their free time on a blog, while on the other side, newspapers conglomerate with huge amount of cash can pay journalists. And make no mistake: even if print newspapers are declining, the capitalist way-of-life will find a way to make money on the Internet, and they will hire people who are searching jobs (journalists) rather than people who already have a job (scientists).

    And on top of that, I am not so sure scientists should be happy of the hypothetical disappearance of journalists. Call me an utopian, but I think that as a citizen, everybody should be worried to see journalism in decline, as it is since 30 years: less budgets in newspapers and in TV station, more and more freelancers who are paid at the same fee-by-word than it was… 30 years ago!!! Any society like ours need people who have time and energy to analyse, be critical -and there are limits to what bloggers can do on their free time.

    All of us, scientists and journalists, should be fighting for a better journalism, rather than believe that scientists will be able to replace journalists.

  42. #42 daedalus2u
    December 25, 2008

    Stephen, is your objective to try to understand the message, or is your objective to try and diminish the messenger? Do you want understand and to talk about the content of the message or do you want to criticize the language, words, style, media used to convey the message? Or do you want to criticize the messenger?

    Asking for clarification of a term is perfectly acceptable. Asking for clarification when the term is perfectly well understood and the request is simply to disrupt the flow of communication and impugn the scientific goodness of the speaker for using such a term (apparently unacceptable to the listener) is exactly the kabuki dance that Bora is talking about. It isn’t about content, it is about form.

    If you know what “grok it” means, why did you interject the parenthetical comment “whatever that means”?

    Are you trying to convey to the rest of us that you are ignorant of what “grok it” means? Do you want us to give you slack in your language, slack that you are unwilling to grant to anyone else? Or is your concern for others who might not understand what the term “grok it” means? That makes you a concern troll.

    Bora did not characterize all scientists as conforming to the kabuki dance and forcing all newcomers to conform to the kabuki dance. It is disingenuous for you to say that he did. He gave examples of individual scientists who do not conform to the kabuki dance. He is fully aware of the heterogeneity of the scientific community. Large does not mean all. You are fully aware of that and are mischaracterizing it to generate a straw man which you can knock down.

    Where a large section of the scientific community is homogeneous is in their adoption of the kabuki dance. The kabuki dance of the scientific community has nothing to do with science. It is completely orthogonal to science. One can do good science without the slightest bit of recourse to the kabuki dance. If you put the kabuki dance ahead of good science (which is where many so-called scientists put it now), then it impedes the ability of the scientific community to advance and to do good science. It greatly impedes the ability of scientists who are not adept at the kabuki dance for reasons that have nothing to do with ability at science. It does not impede those who are adept at the kabuki dance. If the acquisition of resources to do science (i.e. research grants, faculty positions, etc.) are limited to those who can do the best kabuki dance and not those who can do the best science, individual kabuki dancers may do well, but the scientific enterprise as a whole will advance more slowly or not at all.

    You did mischaracterize what Bora said. You generated a straw man which you proceeded to knock down. If you don’t understand it, then you should ask for clarification. To misunderstand something and then characterize your mistaken understanding of it is to mischaracterize it. I think you don’t understand it because you don’t understand the position of those who are on the outside from the perspective of those who are on the outside.

    Patronizing? To recognize a lack of knowledge and offer mechanisms to rectify it? As opposed to simply discounting the content because in smarmy smugness the language doesn’t measure up? Because the language doesn’t match the kabuki dance you want, you will ignore it until “you get off your polemical high-horse pardner and start dealing with reality and specifics, the conversation can’t begin.” Don’t you see, that is exactly and precisely Bora’s point. You are unwilling to even engage in a conversation until that conversation matches the kabuki dance you want it to end up validating. Who is on a high horse and being a patronizing polemic?

    Not my role to educate? To supply an individual with the means to correct an understanding deficit is the essence of education. Correcting an understanding deficit in oneself is the essence of what science is about. If one can’t correct an understanding deficit in oneself, then one is a crappy scientist (insert picture of Roosevelt on potty for shock value).

    I consider it my role as a blogger and as a commenter to educate at every chance I get. I want the world to be a better place, and I see education as playing a major role in that. If one is so afraid that wisps of understanding may flow from reading my comments and contaminate your mental processes, then don’t read them.

  43. #43 MemeInjector3000
    December 31, 2008

    This post and the resultant comments clearly show why blogging will not replace quality science journalism any time soon. (I’m a PhD scientist, by the way.)

    The best blogs are informal, off-the-cuff, idiosyncratic, opinionated, humorous. The best science journalism provides an introduction to the layperson on a topic, historical perspective, commentary from a variety of knowledgeable researchers, and societal implications…. using proper grammar and creative prose.

    Yes, George’s rant was excessive, and science journalism in the US definitely needs major improvement, but blogging is not the answer — unless you think juvenile twitter-speak (ERV) or endless, rambling manifestos (Coturnix) constitute effective communication.

    Some scientists (if they can speak English) might be able to communicate to the public (eg, Carl Sagan), but then again some scientists can probably overhaul their car engines or build an addition on their house. Anyway, what active researcher has the time to fritter away writing a “Parade Magazine” version of their work? Nobody I know.

    Blogging is, should, and hopefully will always be, an adjunct to quality science journalism.

  44. #44 Stephanie Z
    December 31, 2008

    MemeInjector, where is this monolithic public that quality science journalism reaches? People (including many juveniles) do speak the way Abbie writes. Should no one communicate to them? Ditto for people who don’t speak English, by the way, and for people whose attention span is longer than yours.

    With all due respect, perhaps you should get to know a few more people.

  45. #45 Coturnix
    January 3, 2009

    Update: John and George filmed another episode. Horgan redeems himself, Johnson digs himself deeper. A new post is forthcoming – this cannot remain unanswered!

  46. #46 nm
    January 15, 2009

    MemeInjector3000 Said “Anyway, what active researcher has the time to fritter away writing a “Parade Magazine” version of their work? Nobody I know. ”

    What a load of shit.

    I don’t know about Parade Magazine but there are a large number of active researchers who write for Seed and ScienceBlogs for a start off.

    Then there’s active researchers who got involved with ‘teh public’. So off the top of my head…

    Carl Sagan
    Stephen Hawking
    Martin Rees
    Stephen Jay Gould
    Richard Dawkins
    Stephen Pinker
    Robert Winston
    Richard Feynman
    Atul Gawande
    Jared Diamond
    plus in most countries there is a local scientist who regularly fronts up in TV programs (particularly naturalists, physicists and physician/surgeons)

  47. #47 Johanne
    January 16, 2009

    The purpose of language is to make communication possible. If rhetoric improves communication between scientists, by all means use it. But in the case of scientists explaining to the ordinary person,rhetoric may simply be promoting convolution rather than communication. What’s the point of saying something without anyone understanding anything?

  48. #48 Dac
    January 16, 2009

    I agree on some points but the open minded aren’t easily shocked.

  49. #49 S. Ray DeRusse
    February 27, 2009

    I loved the following portion of your post. It rings very very true. As in the link below.

    The entire formal, convoluted, Victorian-proper discourse one is supposed to use in science is geared towards protecting the current power structure and the system that perpetuates it. Keeping the dissenters down and out. But sometimes, anger, or snark, or direct insult, are the jolt that the system needs and it will have to come from the people outside the power structure, and it would have to occur often and intensely until they start paying attention.

    http://www.bccmeteorites.com/misconduct-planetary.html