The Heffernan Conundrum

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.

Comments

  1. #1 cass_m
    July 31, 2010

    Remember people will always find what they are looking for and journalists want to post controversial things. Heffernan came looking for certain things (P.Z.) and she found out that his commenters are abrasive. News flash.

    I find the main page of scienceblogs very well laid out, and science focused, so people can find blogs of interest. There is no need to go to Pharyngula or Dispatches if you’re not interested. I like that each blog is individual and have found lots of new (to me) ideas since bookmarking the network. I have also bought (and read) more science and general non-fiction books since I started hanging round scienceblogs. That is a successful soft sell of science.

  2. #2 Scicurious
    July 31, 2010

    I was concerned about this as well when I read her article. But I also noticed something interesting. She quote-mined rigorously from several posts, one of which was in fact about science, and quoted them in a way as to put Scienceblogs in the worst possible light. In light of that, and her recommendation that instead, we all read “Watt’s up with that”, I feel that she really gave up and pretense of being either informed about what Scienceblogs is, or fair and balanced her in assessment.

  3. #3 Ken
    July 31, 2010

    I found “Uncertain Principles” as my first blog here after some sort of Google search about physics, so I found ScienceBlogs by searching for science. After looking around I decided that I liked the political and cultural blogging on the site as well.

    I keep coming back for both the science and the politics/culture stuff.

  4. #4 Hank Campbell
    July 31, 2010

    A lot of people carped on her about including Watts yet, to an outsider, traffic matters and Watts has it – that’s the same rationale some at Scienceblogs have used as why people should read here despite your agreement that “it’s not completely unreasonable for someone to get the impression that ranting about politics is a major piece of ScienceBlogs.”

    Scientists writing on politics is no different than Watts writing on science. The SNR can be pretty high at times.

  5. #5 agm
    July 31, 2010

    How much of the afternoon did it take you to pull together the numbers together describing Friday post content? Cause if she didn’t do that much, she isn’t reporting, she’s pushing a point of view for some reason.

  6. #6 gregorylent
    July 31, 2010

    it’s a club, all stroking each other, and missing a larger reality, which tends to make them look like what they mock, far too often ..

  7. #7 Chad Orzel
    July 31, 2010

    I was concerned about this as well when I read her article. But I also noticed something interesting. She quote-mined rigorously from several posts, one of which was in fact about science, and quoted them in a way as to put Scienceblogs in the worst possible light. In light of that, and her recommendation that instead, we all read “Watt’s up with that”, I feel that she really gave up and pretense of being either informed about what Scienceblogs is, or fair and balanced her in assessment.

    Of course, she also recommended both Scientific American and Discover, both of which are scientifically solid. And Discover’s science blog collection is outstanding, including two of the best science-focused blogs that used to be part of ScienceBlogs. That inclines me to give her the benefit of the doubt, and suspect that she was duped by Watts, rather than deliberately pushing some kind of right-wing agenda. But I’m not familiar with her other work– maybe she is some sort of denialist using this opportunity to dump on ScienceBlogs.

    I found “Uncertain Principles” as my first blog here after some sort of Google search about physics, so I found ScienceBlogs by searching for science. After looking around I decided that I liked the political and cultural blogging on the site as well.

    I keep coming back for both the science and the politics/culture stuff.

    And that’s largely what keeps me from moving. I decided a while back that what we have is not so much a cohesive network with followers of the whole group as a collection of 70-ish individual blogs with partly overlapping audiences. In which case ScienceBlogs is more like Facebook or MySpace than the New York Times or Fox News– it’s a platform and web host for individual content generators, not a publication with a particular style or coherent message. Which, in turn, is why I wasn’t that upset over the Pepsi business.

    How much of the afternoon did it take you to pull together the numbers together describing Friday post content?

    It took me about half an hour of looking over the combined feed this morning. But then, I’m familiar with many of the blogs on the network already, which makes it a lot easier to categorize posts without reading them all the way through.

    If anything, she probably put more effort and reading into finding the quotes she used than I put into generating those half-assed figures.

  8. #8 cisko
    July 31, 2010

    It reminds me of MTV. You’re here, with your 120 Minutes, playing good music and rocking out. Others are doing MTV Unplugged and The Grind and the like, and it’s good. But meanwhile, the network is making their money from Real World and Punk’d. At some point, the worry is that they’re not really paying attention to the music (erm, actual science) any more.

    Of course blog networks aren’t really like TV networks; Scienceblogs can host as many blogs as they want, and you’re not likely to be affected by the PZ Myers show. The question you’re judging is whether you’re getting associated with the wrong image, in a way that’s not doing a service to the stuff you want to talk about. Your existing audience would mostly follow you if you moved on; the question is whether the new readers that discover you through SB are a good match or not.

  9. #9 HP
    July 31, 2010

    Back in ’00s, I was mostly reading politics blogs. That’s when I first encountered Mike the Mad Biologist and PZ Myers, before ScienceBlogs was founded. (BTW, I think I first read “Bunnies made of cheese” when it was linked from Metafilter.)

    But once I started reading scientists’ blogs, it rekindled my love of science from when I was a kid. And I wouldn’t be surprised to find that many of the “FU boys” who post at PZ and Ed’s blogs are getting exposed to science they wouldn’t otherwise get, through PZ’s posts on evo-devo and sidebar links to affiliate blogs.

    For me, “science blogs” is a bit of a misnomer, almost as though ScienceBlogs became a genericized trademark. What it’s really about, to me, is “scientists blogging,” which is not the same thing.

  10. #10 Dirk Hanson
    July 31, 2010

    “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.”

    It’s a problem for all of you at SB.

  11. #11 AMW
    July 31, 2010

    For what it’s worth, my first exposure to Sb was a link to Pharyngula from a skeptic friend. I would never have gone looking for any of the physical science blogs, or the science-as-art blogs, or the library science blogs, or the geology blogs, on my own. In the past year or so, between the content on Sb and the authors’ various links and blogrolls, I’ve become much more interested in and informed about all of these topics. This is what makes a network useful and important in ways that more than offset the variation in topic and quality. It is extremely easy to skip the political rants and random goofy youtube links, whether you’re using the front page, a reader, or the Last 24 Hours page. Anyone who complains about those posts ruining their experience is clearly trying too hard to have their experience ruined.

  12. #12 Galen Evans
    July 31, 2010

    I have been a regular reader of this blog since I first found out about science blogs due to the ‘expelled’ hubbub over at Pharyngula. I read both Pharyngula and Dispatches Regularly because, well I like to have my angsty atheist blogs. but getting introduced to Sb is what introduced me to more science oriented blogs like yours and ‘Starts With A Bang’ ‘Good Math Bad Math’ and others which are filled with great explanatory posts on science. while, these blogs I treasure more than the atheist rants, without them I may not have been exposed to Sb at all.

  13. #13 Dave B
    July 31, 2010

    Been reading Chad’s blog off and on for years. Occasionally glance at the culture wars/political stuff. Love the civilized tone here and interesting stuff on physics and academic life, not to mention the occasional Steelykid videos. I’ve learned a lot. The stuff from Pharyngula and related blogs plus the slanted politics of the other blogs is a waste of bandwidth– essentially boring and predictable, preaching-to-the-choir polemic. If you are interested in that point of view, read Salon, or go to The Nation site.

  14. #14 Neuro-conservative
    July 31, 2010

    I agree with Dirk Hanson. The SNR on ScienceBlogs is so low, that the noise has become the signal.

  15. #15 Dana Hunter
    July 31, 2010

    Add me to the list of folks who never would have known you existed without PZ. If you hate being in his presence so much, if you’re so terrified of being tarnished by him, by all means leave. But understand that for every person whining about how awful the tone is, there are dozens of others who either don’t care or can thank that tone for galvanizing their passion for science.

  16. #16 jim
    July 31, 2010

    I think you made a useful comparison with WordPress in your comments on Pepsigate – you wouldn’t leave WordPress because some other commercially sponsored blogger set up shop there. OTOH, you might consider withdrawing from writing a column for a newspaper if the newspaper started taking paid content without labelling it as such.

    So, to what extent is Scienceblogs simply a hosting service, and to what extent is it a collective, a publication?

    I have always (since 2007?) seen it as a hosting service, and I don’t bother looking at Sb24, because so much of it is just the continuation of political blogging by other means. There are five science blogs hosted on Sb that I read, and about 25, depending on how you categorise them, elsewhere.

    If I considered Sb as a single publication, my impression of it would be identical to Virginia Heffernan’s.

  17. #17 TheDude
    July 31, 2010

    richarddawkins.net links occasionally to Pharyngula, and so I came about from that way. I don’t really read Pharyngula much anymore, I admit PZ can be a bit over the top at times. The funniest blog post I’ve read to-date though is from Pharyngula ( http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2008/10/wheres_charlton_heston_when_yo.php ). I like the science blogging that’s around here, in particular Uncertain Principles and Built on Facts.

  18. #18 Jacob
    July 31, 2010

    The only ScienceBlogs sites that I read are this one and Built on Facts (which I discovered through the links dumps here). I read both of the blogs via RSS so I really don’t see any of the other stuff on ScienceBlogs. To me at least, it doesn’t matter where your blog is hosted.

  19. #19 Wilson
    July 31, 2010

    I wasn’t going to post, as most of what I have to say is along the lines of “Me too.”, but I wanted to balance an earlier, rather prickly comment.

    I found you via Mark Chu-Carroll (I think), around the time of the whole ‘framing’ argument.

    My vision of ScienceBlogs is much like jim’s. I don’t see it as a publication (much as SB may want me to) so much as a hosting service. They provide a portal to find you all, but once I’ve found one, I just go back to the blog, and essentially ignore its location – ScienceBlogs, Discover, WordPress or whatever.

    I certainly don’t associate you with Good Math, Bad Math or Pharyngula (or any other blog) because you’re on the same host, any more than I would associate (say) Richard Dawkins with Carl Zimmer if their books were done by the same publisher.

    The ‘framing’ argument has faded away. This tempest will too.

  20. #20 MarkH
    August 1, 2010

    Not only have I not writtent in months, but I can’t figure out what was so bad about my quote that she thought it was a prime example of invective. I thought it was just factually describing who doesn’t believe antibiotics work. Bizarre. I’m also not exactly a religion basher. To the extent Christian Scientists from their founder on have denied the microbial basis for infectious disease I am critical, but since when did I join the angry atheist set?

    Citing Watts is also a danger sign, perhaps she is happy to see un infighting because she sees us as pro-global warming?

  21. #21 Chad Orzel
    August 1, 2010

    Regarding the Watts link, Heffernan left a comment at Neuron Culture saying that she regrets using that link, and basically saying what I said in my post and in comment #7: that she was taken in by the appearance and tone, and didn’t realize that it wasn’t good science.

    I would love to know how she found/chose the particular posts she took the quotes from. Some sort of wacky Google search? Maybe they were stories from the widget that puts a few ScienceBlogs links on the NYT site?

  22. #22 Erin
    August 1, 2010

    I found out about ScienceBlogs through TetrapodZoology, which still remains one of my favorite blogs here. True there’s a lot of political discourse, but it’s easily avoided (having its own categorey) and there’s plenty of science besides it. And I don’t think the political stuff is unjustified, it’s usually on topics that have a lot to do with science in general (like climate change bills and science education).
    I might not agree with everything said, or when I do agree with it I might not like the way it’s presented, but I come on to this site to get a better look into what a researcher’s life is like, not just science. And politics is part of that. So long as the political opinion doesn’t BECOME ScienceBlogs and science always remains at the forfront, I’ll keep coming back to read the articles here.

    Besides, the bits of drama that occur over politics are sometimes fun to read, like eating cotton candy. Nothing to be taken in large doses and definitely not without a good healthy helping of intelligence and scientific basis (the veggies to go with your candy).

  23. #23 Jennifer Freeman
    August 2, 2010

    It is amazing that Virginia Heffernan recommended Anthony Watts’ Watts Up With That? as a blog where readers can “steer clear of polarizing.” Watts, who is not a scientist, is quite openly at war with climate scientists (many of whom blog at Realclimate.org), and spends a great deal of his energy calling real climate scientists “alarmists” and publishing posts that use layman tactics to pick apart their science (for instance today a post points out that several months in history were as hot as July 2010 in Philadelphia, falsely implying that this has a bearing on global climate science, and for instance Watts devotes an entire tab on the blog to last spring’s climate hacking incident “climategate” but zero of his stories covered the many detailed explanations by real scientists of the falsehoods in the accusations against the scientists whose emails were revealed in the hack.) Of course, bloggers are welcome to be opinionated, but for Heffernan to list Watts’ site as one with “credible science” alongside scientificamerican.com was misleading and incorrect.