It doesn’t quite beat creationism as the most tiresome topic on science blogs, but the regular argument over whether mainstream science journalism or science blogging has more of “teh awesum” comes pretty close. We science bloggers try to focus on how we’re making a difference in science communication, while every now and then another MSM article or editorial comes out assuring us we’re just taking part in a passing fad.
In a show of snarkiness that had me going “Not this again…”, science journalist George Johnson recently went on a rant about my Sb colleagues Ed Yong and Abbie Smith, decrying their “exasperating ignorance” of his profession. He painted himself as a wise sage of science writing, while Abbie was belittled as a sheltered scientist who knew little outside the confines of her “rat hole of a laboratory.” (In a case of inopportune timing, this particular bloggingheads chat appeared on the front page of Sb, no less.) His diatribe contained almost no actual substance, and instead relied on straw man arguments and ad hominem jabs.
Ed and Abbie have posted their own replies, and Bora and Greg have piled on with some more meta, but I’m sure we’ll be have this debate again. Journalists have their own echo chambers and we have ours (the main difference is that our gripes are usually blog fodder!), and each side pats their comrades on the back and says “Their way of doing things is dying. Who needs them anyway?”
More often that not, it seems that science blog-supporters and science blog-critics are talking past each other. We complain in generalities and get the requisite “harrumphs” of approval from our particular side. Yet who among the wider pool of science writers are journalists, and who are science bloggers? If, like Olivia Judson, you write a science blog for a MSM establishment, are you a journalist or a blogger? Carl Zimmer, one of everyone’s favorites in print and on the web, likewise spans the divide. Does being a journalist simply come down to training? Or is it writing for an institution and having to run work by an editor? If the latter question is answered in the affirmative, then I would qualify as a journalist for my work at Dinosaur Tracking, but I don’t feel at all comfortable with that title because whatever modicum of writing talent I have has been entirely home-grown. The point is that we rarely define our terms because it’s much more convenient than having to stop and think about what we actually mean.
This confusion over definitions can lead us to be long on vitriol but short on substantive critique. It would be idiotic of me to say that all science journalists are full of it and that their days are numbered due to the rise of the science blogohedron (h/t to Blake for the term). There are good science journalists out there, but what I think grates on the nerves of many science bloggers are the people who modify press releases and come up with horrible summaries of new research.
In my primary area of interest (paleontology), for instance, the emphasis is often on the biggest, the meanest, the fastest, the strangest, etc., and claims can easily get overblown. From the grumbling I’ve seen elsewhere on the web, this general complaint seems to hold true for other areas of research, too. Would having scientists, or generally more science-savvy people, write for newspapers and magazines help iron out this problem? Maybe, maybe not. When it comes to research, scientists can fight like cats anyway, so I have no doubt that we’d still be complaining about what so-and-so said in a given article. Being able to ditch most of the jargon in explaining concepts to the public does not always a good science writer make, either, and there is certainly something to be said for the training that professional journalists go through.
As I have said before, I think that rather than replacing print media, science blogs can serve as a talent pool of people who have a strong science background and can write well. Transitioning from the web to the printed page requires some changes, but I think that science blogs and “traditional” science writing can complement each other. (I’m not suggesting that every blogger work towards this end, as some people have a style that wouldn’t translate well, but I think it could work for some bloggers.) I am definitely glad to see the way in which science blogging has grown and evolved, but I think it’s a bit daft to think we’re going to replace the people writing for newspapers and magazines. If anything I hope the intersection between science blogging and journalism is widened; I hope more professional writers would engage science bloggers and that good science bloggers would start writing for newspapers and magazines. The two are compliments to each other, and the bickering over science superiority is not only unhelpful, but it often induces yawns from this writer.