A lot of Twitter energy was soaked up Friday afternoon by a half stupid article by Virginia Heffernan at the New York Times. Sparked by Sodamageddon, she takes a look at ScienceBlogs for the first time, and doesn’t like what she sees:
Hammering away at an ideology, substituting stridency for contemplation, pummeling its enemies in absentia: ScienceBlogs has become Fox News for the religion-baiting, peak-oil crowd. Though Myers and other science bloggers boast that they can be jerky in the service of anti-charlatanism, that’s not what’s bothersome about them. What’s bothersome is that the site is misleading. It’s not science by scientists, not even remotely; it’s science blogging by science bloggers. And science blogging, apparently, is a form of redundant and effortfully incendiary rhetoric that draws bad-faith moral authority from the word “science” and from occasional invocations of “peer-reviewed” thises and thats.
I’m not sure when she looked at the site, or what blogs she looked at other than the few she quotes, but I’m insulted by the claim that there’s no science on ScienceBlogs. In the three weeks since the Pepsi incident got to the point where I felt obliged to comment, I’ve done four ResearchBlogging posts (on physics education, the size of the proton, quantum probabilities, and ultracold atoms), a post explaining topological insulators, a post on the physics of a backyard fountain, an explanation of electron spin, and an experiment in practical thermodynamics. That’s a good chunk of solid science, explained for a general audience by a professional scientist (i.e., me). Rhett at Dot Physics and Ethan at Starts With a Bang have also continued to bring the physical-science goodness.
(Really, the most frustrating thing about this whole stupid Pepsi debacle is that I am happier with the mix of content I’m putting on the blog right now than I have been in quite a while, but meta-blogging is soaking up all the attention.)
Even with the recent departures, there’s a lot of terrific writing about science here, much of it by scientists– Jason Goldman has saved me a lot of typing by pulling together a list.
To round out the stupid half, her list of recommendations of places to look for “science that’s accessible but credible” includes noted climate change denier Anthony Watts, who puts all his blogging effort into sowing doubt about good, solid climate science. Whee!
At the same time, though, her article makes me a little uneasy about ScienceBlogs as a whole and my association with it.
It would be a stretch to call anything in her article “smart,” but at the same time, I think it would be disingenuous to claim that her impression of the site is entirely stupid. Yes, there’s lots of science posted here, and lots of blogs that focus on science, but it’s not completely unreasonable for someone to get the impression that ranting about politics is a major piece of ScienceBlogs.
If you look at a day’s worth of posts on the combined feed, you find at least as much explicitly political material as you do material explaining science issues — a very rough count for Friday put it at 21 politics posts and 16 explaining-science posts out of 61 total, the remaining third being life-in-academia stuff, administrative posts, meta-blogging (2-3 posts about Heffernan’s article) and other miscellany. (I’m as guilty as anyone else of this– only two of the ten posts currently on my front page are explaining-science items.)
(You can argue– and I have– that a lot of this miscellany is important to the mission of communicating science to the public, in that things like kid- and pet-blogging help humanize scientists, and goofy polls and the like build community. I would hesitate to categorize those as being about science, though, and can understand people (including many bloggers) dismissing them as not-science.)
If you look at what people are most likely to read, the split’s even bigger. Over 50% of the traffic to ScienceBlogs comes from two blogs, Pharyngula and Dispatches from the Culture Wars, that primarily post about, well, culture wars– politics and religion. Communicating science is our nominal mission, but talking about politics is what pays the bills.
I don’t think it’s outrageous or unreasonable for someone new to the network to check it out and come away with the impression that ScienceBlogs is at least as much about politics as science (and politics with a very particular slant at that). I’m a little puzzled as to how Heffernan found the particular material she mentions– one of the blogs she cites hasn’t posted anything new in months– but somebody looking at the last few days of posts could easily draw a similar conclusion.
And while her characterization of the general tone of the site as “gratuitous contempt” is a bit extreme, a lot of the culture-wars stuff is presented in a manner I find distasteful. (For that matter, some of the science content is presented in a manner I find distasteful…) Again, I don’t know how she picked the particular posts she did, but again, I would have a hard time honestly saying that a first-time visitor to the network complaining about excessive snark was wrong.
In fact, Heffernan’s piece can be seen as a demonstration of how the excessive snark can be a problem. Here we have a person who by her own admission doesn’t read science blogs, reading ScienceBlogs for the first time. And she’s put off by the politics and the general tone, to the point where Anthony Watts looks good to her. I’m not a regular reader of Watts’s blog, but looking over his current front page, it’s not hard to see why Heffernan would go that way. His articles are ultimately deceptive, but they’re really good at giving the appearance of being serious discussions about science, with very little ranting. Given the choice between good science presented with a lot of gratuitous insults and bad science presented relatively calmly, Heffernan goes with the apparently nice and polite guy, and disdains the people she perceives as ranting.
This is not to say that culture-war blogging and snarky blogging are invalid and everyone should stop doing them. It’s obviously a very successful approach (way more so than blogging about low-energy physics), and there’s a big audience for it. That audience obviously doesn’t include Virginia Heffernan or others like her, but there’s nothing necessarily wrong about that.
It does make me worry, though, about the impression the network as a whole creates and whether I really want to be associated with that. If people– whether they’re New York Times writers or just random civilians– glance over ScienceBlogs and dismiss the whole thing as RantyAtheistBlogs without ever reading my stuff, that’s a problem for me. This is something I mentioned in my Sodamageddon post– I have come much closer to leaving ScienceBlogs over stuff posted at Pharyngula than anything associated with the ill-advised Pepsi blog.
I’ve kicked this around in my head several times over the years, and ultimately decided that I have an audience here that I’m very happy with, and that to the extent that I can keep the political stuff off my own blog (which I’ll be the first to admit I’m not that good at), I can avoid being too strongly associated with views and actions I find distasteful. The most common reaction I get when I tell people I blog at ScienceBlogs is still “Never heard of it,” not “Oh. Those people,” and as long as that’s the case, I’m probably ok.
Dumb as it is in most ways, though, Heffernan’s piece makes me wonder about that decision again.