Yeah, let’s criticize that she didn’t get past the first impression of science blogs. We should expect Heffernan to look before leaping – she writes for the Times, after all, which still has a certain reputation as a paper of record and quality. But let’s not pretend that her impression ain’t shared by anyone else.
For instance, she took heat for recommending a climate denialist blog. But that’s not the first time that blog got recommended by people who ought to know better. That tells me there’s something we can learn there.
When we read Heffernan’s piece, we don’t like it. She was bound to get a lot of, “You don’t know what you’re talking about” (which, like I said, she earned). But she’s not getting as much, “Would you like to learn?”
I’d go even a bit further than that. I would say that if the goal of science blogging is to communicate science to a general audience, Virginia Heffernan is our target audience, and her negative reaction ought to make us stop to think about what it is we’re doing.
For all the vitriol directed at her, Heffernan is not a stupid person. Total imbeciles don’t usually get regular columns with the New York Times, and if her bio on Wikipedia is accurate, she’s got advanced degrees from good schools. Her background is in English literature, not science, but not everyone is a scientist.
She’s taken a lot of heat for recommending “Watt’s Up With That” as an alternative to ScienceBlogs, which she says she regrets:
I linked to it because has a lively voice; it’s detail-oriented and seemingly not snide; and, above all, it has some beautiful images I’d never seen before. I’m a stranger to the debates on science blogs, so I frankly didn’t recognize the weatherspeak on the blog as “denialist”; I didn’t even know about denialism. I’m don’t endorse the views on the Watts blog, and I’m extremely sorry the recommendation seemed ideological.
Many of the responses to this have been uncharitable, generally of the form “You should’ve learned better before writing about it.” Which, you know, is okay as far as it goes, but where should she have gone to learn better? One of the obvious candidates would be ScienceBlogs, or just science blogs generally, but that’s exactly the problem: She was turned off by what she perceived as the tone here, and thus didn’t read the blogs where she could/should have learned that Watts is as ideological as they come.
That’s where I think this incident points out a real problem: if we’re really trying to promote science, Virginia Heffernan is our target audience: she’s a smart and educated person with no science background, who would benefit from learning more about science in an informal manner. She’s one of the people we ought to be speaking to using blogging as a platform.
If we’re driving her away before she learns anything, there’s something wrong. And castigating her after the fact, essentially for being driven away, is not helping at all.
That’s what bothers me about this whole incident. Firing up people who are already interested in science and know something about it is great, but to paraphrase an Adlai Stevenson joke, we need a majority. If we want to improve the standing of science, and make the world a better place, we need to reach people like Virginia Heffernan (at the very least), and get them on the side of science.
(Of course, my calling her “half stupid” isn’t as helpful as it might be, and now I sort of regret that phrasing.)
Now, it might be that she’s really a denialist in disguise, and deliberately whipping up sentiment against ScienceBlogs for nefarious purposes. But, you know, if you always assume that people who disagree with you are acting in bad faith, you’re not going to get anywhere good. I’m inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt on the Watts thing, especially since the other two sites she recommended are, in fact, excellent sources for people who want to learn about science.
It might also be that communicating science to people like Virginia Heffernan is not the real goal of ScienceBlogs. If that’s the case, though, as I said Saturday, I worry that I’m in the wrong place, because that is one of the things I’d like to do. She is, in many ways, the target audience for How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, and this blog as well. If that’s not a shared goal of ScienceBlogs, and if the pursuit of whatever other goal is being pursued drives her away from the site before she gets all the way to “U” in the alphabetical list of blogs, then that’s a problem.
Anyway, in the spirit of that NeuroDojo post, and in the unlikely event that she actually reads this, I’ll offer to do what I can to explain science, and point out the best of science blogs, to Ms. Heffernan and anyone else in her position.