Laelaps

Ever since it was made available last month I have been anxiously awaiting the first formal reviews of the new edition of The Open Laboratory: The best science writing on blogs 2008. Today the first appeared over at the New Scientist, but much of it had little to do with The Open Laboratory itself. Although I was happy to see that my contribution about what Joseph Hooker’s kids did to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species manuscript merited a mention, the rest of the review left me somewhat perplexed.

According to the author, Michael Le Page, the review was heavily influenced by the ongoing debate about the place of science blogging vis-a-vis traditional forms of science writing (primarily journalism). (For one of the best essays on this whole fracas see this piece by Carl Zimmer.) A major part of this ongoing argument is about whether bloggers communicate science more accurately and effectively than their mainstream counterparts, with many bloggers answering in the affirmative and journalists in the negative. Le Page falls into the latter camp and writes;

Take the most important scientific issue of our time, climate change. For the last two years, the “Best Science Blog” in the Weblogs Awards, which are based on readers’ votes, has gone to blogs by climate change deniers. Such blogs may be having an influence: polls show more and more Americans now think the threat posed by climate change is exaggerated even though denialism has become rarer in the mainstream media, with even Fox News finally embracing the truth.

Apparently Le Page has not been keeping up with XKCD as his statement is a rather flimsy attempt to turn correlation into causation. There is nothing in the paragraph that demonstrates how a blog that peddles pseudoscience is directly causing the trend he identifies in the polls. Instead we are merely asked to believe that because a pseudoscience blog is popular it therefore places a black mark on all science blogs. As baseless as this attempted connection is, though, Le Page uses it to jump into a head-on attack of science blogging;

While newspapers may indeed have an abysmal track record when it comes to reporting on science, many blogs out there are far worse. And people are generally drawn to blogs that reinforce their own views, not ones that challenge them. Overall, I suspect that the rise of blogging, far from improving people’s knowledge and understanding of science, has made matters worse.

Which science blogs have a track record more abysmal than newspapers? Le Page doesn’t say, and he uses his soapbox to state that blogs have made things worse because… erm… because… well because he says so, that’s why! If Le Page doesn’t particularly like science blogs, that’s one thing, but I fail to see how his claim that science blogs have “made matters worse” in science popularization can be substantiated. If he has evidence to support his claim I would love to see it.

This sort of treatment makes Le Page’s compliment in the next paragraph, that his criticisms of science blogs are “not true of the blog posts selected for [the Open Laboratory 2008]“, cold comfort. One would think that if the compliments were genuine they might have caused him to reevaluate what he said in the first half of the review!

Is every science blog post written a masterpiece of science communication? Of course not! Different writers have different styles and attract different audiences. There are blogs that require some technical knowledge as well as some that are accessible to nearly everyone, and the quality and style of the output of a particular blogger varies over time. Little else could be expected of a public forum open to anyone who wishes to speak up. We are still learning about what science blogs can and cannot do when it comes to science communication, but I cannot imagine what has led Le Page to assert that they are generally harmful.

Much of this overworn debate about science bloggers and journalists deals in false alternatives. It would be profoundly ignorant to say that all science journalists are talentless recyclers of press releases or that all science blogging is too technical for popular consumption. Nor is it true, as Zimmer pointed out in his essay, that science blogging will be able to (or ought to) replace “traditional” science journalism. Unfortunately, however, the realities of the situation are often overlooked so that firm boundary lines can be drawn. It is more fun to generate heat than light, so to speak. Science blogs are continuing to grow and change during a time when mainstream science journalism is suffering, and whatever relationship the two methods of science communication have to each other is likely to continue to change.

Update: Blake and Scicurious have also jumped in on this one. (I think Sci’s post wins teh interwebz for today, though, for figuring out how to include Little Bunny Foo Foo into the discussion as well as providing another excellent take on the subject.) Check them both out, as well as the comments below!

Comments

  1. #1 Carl Zimmer
    April 7, 2009

    Maybe they are just sensitive

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    April 7, 2009

    I’d rather criticism had made them competent, but I guess we’ll have to work with “sensitive”.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    April 7, 2009

    For the last two years, the “Best Science Blog” in the Weblogs Awards, which are based on readers’ votes, has gone to blogs by climate change deniers.

    Of all the evidence he could have chosen to support his (dubious) thesis, he picked a particularly bad datum. All this goes to show is that a couple climate-change denialists have readerships sufficiently dedicated to game the votes in a particularly wacky online poll. (PZ Myers as much as said that winning the award this year would have been embarrassing.) That’s like judging the audience appeal of a band by polling the people who follow them on tour. You could be less scientific, but you’d have to try pretty hard.

  4. #4 Heraclides
    April 7, 2009

    It would be interesting to see him comment on the use of internet polls by the media…

  5. #5 Blake Stacey
    April 7, 2009

    Matthew Le Page wrote:

    And people are generally drawn to books, magazines, newspapers and TV shows that reinforce their own views, not ones that challenge them.

    I’m almost positive I copied that correctly.

  6. #6 H.H.
    April 7, 2009

    Le Page’s concerns apply to the entire internet, not just blogs. Yes, there’s more bad information out there than ever before, making it possible for someone to reinforce whatever views they hold regardless of their merit. (One need only to look at Conservapedia or any of the numerous creationism sites on the web.) But he’s aiming at the wrong target. Rather than uselessly trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle, he should do more to promote the good blogs out there, like those here at ScienceBlogs. Because I hate to be the one to tell him this, but this whole computer fad? It’s not going to go away.

  7. #7 BrianR
    April 7, 2009

    I agree w/ you Brian … unnecessary false choices. I am a science blogger, read other science blogs, but read mainstream science articles all the time. All of the examples (especially my own) suck from time to time.

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    April 8, 2009

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  9. #9 rajaram
    April 8, 2009

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  10. #10 Glendon Mellow
    April 8, 2009

    Well said, Brian!

    The reviewer tried to provide some sort of background, perhaps for New Scientist readers who don’t read blogs. It seemed like a rant about blogs, and oh, then there’s this book which is sorta okay.

    It would have been nice to have had a book review.

  11. #11 Scicurious
    April 8, 2009

    Laelaps rocks my socks today!!

  12. #12 Ed Yong
    April 8, 2009

    Awesome response Brian. Very measured and eloquent. My two cents on the whole debate here.

  13. #13 Scicurious
    April 9, 2009

    btw, Brian, that Little Bunny Foo Foo reference was ALL for < a href="http://scienceblogs.com/sciencewoman/2009/04/sciencegrandma_has_left_the_bu.php">Sciencewoman. :)

  14. #14 Zach Miller
    April 9, 2009

    Here’s where I come down on the issue: If you just click around on science blogger blogrolls, you can see that there are TONS of worthwhile science blogs out there. Science enthusiasts are eager to get science out to the public, and get it out there correctly. Yeah, there’s a wide range of topics covered, and Tet Zoo will always be better than When Pigs Fly, but they also cater to different audiences.

    At the end of the day, the Associated Press is still calling pterosaurs “dinosaurs,” comparing every new carnivorous dinosaur to T.rex and Velociraptor, and abusing the phrase “real life Jurassic Park.” I guess more people read newspapers than blogs. Great. But they’re getting the wrong information.

    This issue is ultimately about who is reporting science better. Nine times out of ten (at least on my blogroll), the science bloggers win out. And when they get it wrong, their readers point it out, and the blog is (or at least can be) instantly edited to reflect that new information.

    And to say that the public just gravitates to whatever online content holds their own views is a cop-out. Le Page acts like blogs present the only case of polarization in the media, but that’s simply not true (MSNBC vs. Fox news?). What’s more, he’s not giving the public enough credit. People genuinely want to learn new things, and as a science blogger, I am ready and willing to provide those morsels.

  15. #15 Michael Le Page
    April 15, 2009

    Freed from the constraints of a 450-word article for print, let me make my position clearer.

    I am a fan what you might call “proper” science blogs. I read and enjoy quite a few myself, and I think some, most notably RealClimate, make an important contribution. I think both the criticism of and competition with traditional science journalism is a positive thing.

    That said, even “proper” science blogs do not get it right all the time. I spotted the odd error in the blogs appearing in The Open Laboratory, for instance.

    Also, consider the blogosphere’s reaction to New Scientist’s recent withdrawal of an article, when false and implausible rumours spread like wildfire. The problem is that many bloggers, unlike at least some journalists, don’t pause to pick up the phone.

    http://blog.newhumanist.org.uk/2009/03/whats-going-on-at-new-scientist.html

    These are minor issues, though. The real problem is with what you and I would call pseudoscience blogs, but which to their readers are also “science blogs”, such as ClimateAudit and Watts Up. Note that I said “the rise of blogging… has made matters worse”, not “the rise of science blogging”.

    In other words, I think “proper” science blogging is a good thing, and the world is better off for it. Unfortunately, if you take into account all blogs purporting to be about science, I think the overall effect is negative.

    Can I prove it? No. I was careful to say “I SUSPECT the rise of blogging… has made matters worse” because I fully accept I have not backed up this claim. Indeed, I doubt if it is possible to prove or disprove this either way.

    What I can say is that whenever New Scientist runs climate change articles, we get letters telling us how wrong we are. Sometimes I reply asking for scientific references to back the letter writers’ claims and, nowadays, I inevitably get back emails full of links to various climate denial blogs.

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