Pursuant to … pursuits … I am once again culling old posts for classic items to repost for you now and then this month. I need a breather, and that is how I’m going to get it. Sadly, or alternatively, happily, two years ago in July we were in South Africa, so I’ve got nothing substantive from that time period. But, in looking at one year ago, I found something very interesting. It turns out that July 2008 was a rather spectacular month, blogospherically.

July 2008 was a turning point in the blogosphere, and July 2009 promises to be one as well. One year ago, give or take a few weeks, several things happened. Some of those things relate to events unfolding as we speak. I’d like to review them for you and give you a warning of what might happen next.

Carl Zimmer moved from Scienceblogs.com to Discover. This was near the beginning of a series of moves (including an earlier move by Deep Sea News) from Sciencblogs.com to elsewhere, many to Discover. There was no clear indication that these many moves had a single cause or what the cause was, other than Discover setting up shop and developing a stable of bloggers. But the result of this and other shifts meant that The Loom, Deep Sea News, The Intersection, Joan Bushwell’s, John Wilkins, and others had left the Scienceblogs.com team, and that a new entity (Discover blogs) was on the scene, as well as some new (or renewed) independent blogs. Other blogs in other places were moving around as well.

About a year ago, Randy Olson’s film Sizzle came on the scene. This actually caused more trouble in the science Blogosphere itself than one might have expected, with tooth barring and heel nipping going back and forth among bloggers at the expense of forward movement on the climate change front. For the most part, many science bloggers were mad at Randy for producing a movie that a) they did not like for a number of reasons and b) that had only one graph. In my view, the scientists who did not like the film much were actually being made fun of in the film, especially with that particular graph that was chosen (one of the funniest moments in the film, in fact). But that is not why the scientists didn’t like it. They didn’t like it because it just was not their kind of film. Which I can totally appreciate. Personally, I liked the film a lot, but I can see why others did not, and I am pretty sure that Randy was the least surprised at this outcome.

What is important here with respect to the science blogosphere is this: People got mad at each other over whether or not they liked a film, and so existing schisms, in some cases, broadened, and potential ties failed to form or strengthen. Because science bloggers are not good at handling disagreement.

About a year ago, Nature (the magazine) came out with an editorial referring to a study or two indicating that OpenAccess publishing was a failure and that models like Nature were the way to go (see this for an overview and links). This started a big fight that eventually settled down but for a while people were pretty mad at each other. Again, it was bloggers doing most of the messing around, bloggers connected with Nature vs. bloggers who supported OpenAccess. I’m sure people at the time did understand that the existence of OpenAccess does not really threaten the commercial model and visa versa, or at least not necessarily. But dogmatic argument ensued and not much positive actually happened, if I recall correctly.

One year ago, plus or minus a few weeks, was Crackergate. Crackergate resulted in a widening of an existing rift between bloggers who are so called appeasers and bloggers who are so called new atheists, a rift that I fear is widening again, one year later, with the publication of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future and reactions to that book, such as PZ Myers’ review. I’ll address that issue later on when I put up my review of that new book by Mooney and Kirshenbaum.

Bloggers and their ideas.

This month is also the anniversary of the imprisonment of Gus Hall who had ideas that threatened the status quo, of the first moon landing, which required the assembly and coordination of ideas into a machine like dogma that would translate into … an actual machine. This month is also when we celebrate Nelson Mandela’s birthday. He is a man who has suffered greatly because of the ideas of others and has led the way to a reconsideration of how societies should work and how nations should work. This month is the anniversary of the publication of Darwin and Wallace’s paper on Natural Selection. That idea has led to the some of the greatest advancements in science, and the greatest (intellectual) rifts in Western society. It is also not utterly irrelevant that this month is the birthday of the United States.

Meanwhile, the crisis on the delta continues, the rape culture of post apocalyptic failed states expands, and bloggers argue over when and how bloggers should argue.

I promised a few words on what might happen next. Well, I lied. You already know what will happen next.

People will say things. Other people will not get what was said, out of ignorance, chance, or willful mischief. There will be yelling. There will be whinging. When things get tough, people start to change their motivations from something worthwhile to something not very savory. Power games will be played.

The truth is that the science blogosphere is in exactly the same place we were one year ago. We may think we have valid and bejezuseleventyfuckyou differences, but we don’t. We are all in the same boat and the boat is full of holes and we’re all so busy showing off that nobody is patching those holes.

See you at the bottom, I guess….


  1. #1 Mike Haubrich
    July 9, 2009

    Oh! We were supposed to try to fix the holes? Crap! I was involved in trying to figure out who had the roundest ones.

  2. #2 Dan J
    July 9, 2009

    People will say things. Other people will not get what was said, out of ignorance, chance, or willful mischief. There will be yelling. There will be whinging. When things get tough, people start to change their motivations from something worthwhile to something not very savory. Power games will be played.

    Greg, since you’ve experienced different cultures on a scale that I can only dream of, do you see this type of activity in a broad spectrum elsewhere?

  3. #3 Stephanie Z
    July 9, 2009

    I agree with a lot of what you’re saying here. However, I think that even as you’re pointing out that there are more important things than blogger egos, you’re not looking past the bloggers yourself (or at least not talking about it in the post).

    There are also readers, many of whom don’t really give a damn about the sides of any given argument. The readers wander from place to place following an argument, and at least some of them actually learn. They learn when PZ ends a campaign to light a fire by giving a history lesson. They learn when writers meet scientists (who are mostly also writers) in a post about accepting critique that one has solicited. They learn that an “academic” discussion about publication can have consequences for them. They learn how to spot what looks like a reasoned argument but isn’t.

    Even some of the bloggers learn. I recall an argument over a news article out of Africa that got very heated, then ended very quickly. Instead of more argument, we got the Congo Memoirs and the posts that have followed. People are learning more about Africa because of that change in tactics.

    The loudest parts of the science blogosphere may be having the same arguments all over again, but that doesn’t mean nothing has changed.

  4. #4 KJHaxton
    July 10, 2009

    One obvious change is that certain areas of the blogosphere have become more polarised, no longer places where information and reasoned debate can be sought. I find that some of these arguments become so over run with yelling, willful mischief and unpleasantness that it is no longer possible to follow the debate. In nearly 4 years of blogging, the last 12 months have seen the greatest numbers of blogs cut from my RSS reader because of the nature of the arguments held on them. I find that quite sad.

    Any suggestions for patching those holes?

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    July 10, 2009

    KJH: Funny that YOU should ask about patches!?!? Thank you for that.

    Stephanie: I could probably write a parallel post that argues how far we’ve come since the last year. And both posts would be reasonably accurate. Your point about the role of commenters and other participants in the discussion leads in an entirely new direction as well. I think I’m starting to learn to spot incipient Almost Diamonds blogspheric essays…

    Dan: I think there is some basic human nature going on here, yes.

  6. #6 Stephanie Z
    July 10, 2009

    I’m not sure whether I’ve got more to say on this yet. You could just be spotting the fact that I felt compelled to stop and make this comment, which I was. We’ll see.

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    July 10, 2009

    My main objective here is to get people to consider reflection on progress or lack thereof (or regress) and to consider structural changes or stagnation and how it has helped or not. Most people won’t consider any of those things, of course. So I’m really talking to the new and upcoming bloggers who will replace the old guard over the next year or two.

    And there are times when I think we are all part of Coturnix‘s plan

  8. #8 Jason Thibeault
    July 10, 2009

    More shameless self-promotion — what if these holes in our boat are being caused by molotov cocktails thrown by the guys in the other boat? I agree completely that the in-fighting is distracting from the cause, and I agree that all this blogospheric navel-gazing is horrid, but to convince the other guys in the boat to stop throwing elbows is going to be of paramount importance to righting our ship and not just patching the holes, but getting some of us to start pulling our weight and rowing again.

    Oh how I love a metaphor stretched so thin as to be transparent.

  9. #9 Jason Thibeault
    July 10, 2009

    Greg: All part of what? Don’t leave us in antici–

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    July 10, 2009

    Funny … my HTML did not work.

  11. #11 Stephanie Z
    July 10, 2009

    As long as we’re talking about learning from parallels, there may be some worth in looking at who starts the same arguments over again in the same places instead of addressing the responses they receive. It wouldn’t be the first time that tactic was used to stall a discussion–not even the first time around here. I’m starting to find it a fairly reliable indicator of who is interested in an argument instead of a discussion.

    Or maybe I’m just getting cynical and grumpy about being a punching bag every time someone sees their work roll off the presses.

  12. #12 Blake Stacey
    July 10, 2009

    I never saw Sizzle (which in itself is part of the problem: tell me again why I should be taking advice from a man who can’t get his movie screened anywhere other than a couple crunchy-granola film festivals?). However, from the reviews I read, I don’t think the scientists who disliked it did so because it “wasn’t their kind of movie”. Rather, they couldn’t tell how it was anyone’s kind of movie: the story and pacing and themes were a confused muddle, they said, and some of the humour was pointlessly crass.

    There’s this idea afoot that when a scientist doesn’t like a movie, it has to be because the science was all wrong. Far be it for a physicist to dislike the new Star Trek because it devolved from a promising beginning into a brainless, fist-slamming romp through a special effects warehouse whose “plot” turned out to be Star Wars with the names changed! Far be it for said physicist to say, “I’m willing to suspend disbelief on all the sound-in-space business — once you presuppose warp drive, all bets are off — but the story I was supposed to suspend disbelief for just wasn’t worth it.”

    The science documentaries which inspired us young’uns when we were in the larval stage — I’m thinking Cosmos and Connections and all that lot — were not spectacularly chart-reliant. They did not deluge us with facts and figures. Instead, they chose a path through the landscape of fact and made a story out of it.

  13. #13 Blake Stacey
    July 10, 2009

    The overall irony being, I guess, that the people who are most insistent that scientists “stop acting like scientists” and appreciate the viewpoint of the “common man” never pay attention when they do.

    We all have our roles to play in this hysterical little farce of ours, and the first rule is that we never respond to what a person says, but only to what their character does on the stage of our preconceptions. . . .

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    July 10, 2009

    Blake: Lots of people liked the movie, and there were also a bunch who did not, who tended to be scientists. Among scienceblogs.com bloggers, the percentage was actually higher (of disliking it). People unconnected with science tended to like it, and it was much like din he GLBTA community (non science).

    These are the data. There could be something about the scientist.

    There were a number of scientists who indicated prior to seeing it that they would not like it. That also is an important datum.

    I mean, really, you’re telling me that my analysis is wrong and YOU haven’t seen it. How doees THAT work?

  15. #15 Greg Laden
    July 10, 2009

    BTW Blake (I thought of this moments after my prior comment but by then had turned off the computer…): Sizzle was not a science documentary. Not even close. One of the absurdities of the time was that people were complaining that it was not a good documentary. Watch it. You will be astonished that people criticized it for being a documentary.

  16. #16 NewEnglandBob
    July 11, 2009

    @15 Greg Laden

    You TURN OFF your computer? Is that allowed?????

    Oh, it must be one of those laptop thingies.

  17. #17 Alcaru
    July 11, 2009

    And yet, as soon as 99.95% of people close their tab (or window, if you’re old fashioned), they stop caring about what happens on the internet. Something that makes everyone’s life happier.