Not Exactly Rocket Science

A amusing case of curmudgeonly meta-failure

Some of you may remember that earlier this month, I recorded a chat with fellow ScienceBlogger Abbie Smith, in which we discussed science journalism, blogging, vampires and various other such topics du jour. Well, among those who watched the chat was one George Johnson, a journalist who took umbrage with what was said. George has described the chat as “exasperatingly ignorant” and describes us as “interlopers”. This man is not a happy bunny.

Abbie’s had a more verbose take on George’s criticisms, but I’m going to keep it brief (and I’ve posted this reply on Abbie’s thread and the Bloggingheads forums).To be honest, I’d rather spend time on writing up some science than on defending myself because honestly, taking out the straw-man interpretations and ad hominem attacks, there’s remarkably little in the way of substantive arguments that I can actually respond to.

I stand accused of suggesting that science writers should be about acting as stenographers or publicists, which I don’t recall every insinuating and which certainly doesn’t gel with my own view of science writing. I apparently said that “you’re not allowed to be critical”, which again seems like the opinion of someone else. Maybe there was someone sitting behind me? Even the bit where I talk about the need for scientists to sell their message, which is pretty standard media-training stuff (more here), seems to have been interpreted as a cynical tactic for federal funding.

So I really can’t help feeling that my opinions have been misinterpreted and my conclusions have been twisted. Which, given that we were discussing the weaknesses of modern science journalism, I can’t help but find deeply ironic. Seriously, if you’re going to attack someone who has said that your profession should take heed with misinterpretations and misquotations, it seems like a bad idea to misinterpret and misquote them. Doing so might be construed as, for lack of a better term, meta-failure. 

And yes, I too can name many, many good science journalists – Carl Zimmer, Ben Goldacre, Mark Henderson etc. I aspire to have similar careers and to be able to write with similar skill and flair. And I hope that when I do, I don’t react to a couple of young “interlopers” with the sheer disdain that’s in this video.

Comments

  1. #1 Abel Pharmboy
    December 21, 2008

    Granted, I did not listen to the entire BHTV diatribe but I found it rather instructive as a practicing scientist who also teaches in sci/med journalism programs.

    The dismissive point that a bad experience with a middle America might override the experience of a plethora of really outstanding science writers is a strawman. I would argue that the people we are trying to reach in the Wichita Eagle deserve the highest quality science writers. As a result, Johnson’s argument is flawed. If these elite writers noted by Johnson do not reach the rural US (or the rest of the world), then science journalism is as much a failure as bloggers who attempt to pick up the slack.

    I have no real offense toward the MSM because many folks I know there are at the mercy of the sword of Damocles. However, one need only look at the WSJ Health Blog to see how superb writers are adapting to the blogging medium *and* directing traffic toward their paid content.

    We can all whine but those who adapt will survive.

  2. #2 Ed Yong
    December 22, 2008

    Couldn’t agree more Abel. And honestly, I think if you’re an elite science writer, you get a rose-tinted picture of the profession because you get to socialise and work with the best-of-the-best within the trade. And using them as exemplars isn’t exactly the fairest representation.