The Thoughtful Animal

Virginia Heffernan wrote a piece in today’s NY Times Magazine. She writes:

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.

and

Does everyone take for granted now that science sites are where graduate students, researchers, doctors and the “skeptical community” go not to interpret data or review experiments but to chip off one-liners, promote their books and jeer at smokers, fat people and churchgoers?

It’s just not that simple or straightforward. And she’s mostly wrong.

Of course the easy thing to do would be to recommend that she read David Dobbs’s response, or Doctor Zen’s. Or any of the post’s mentioned in Bora’s PepsiGate linkfest, or his farewell post, or in his thank you post, or in his networks post. Or this, from Scott Rosenberg, author of Say Everything. Or she could go check out any of the previous four editions of Open Lab (she could even download digital versions for less than $10 apiece). Or she could surf on over to Research Blogging (which, yes, is also funded by Seed Media Group) to check out all the awesome research blogging from all over the science blogosphere.

Virginia Heffernan did the easy thing by picking on some of the larger blogs here at Scienceblogs, and in doing so, fell into the old no-science-on-scienceblogs trope.

So I’m going to do her work for her.


Here, Virginia, are links to blogs in this here network which contain all or nearly-all purely scientific blogging, which should be interesting to the general public (here, I’m generally avoiding awesome blogs like Adventures in Ethics and Science and Drugmonkey, which have more narrow audiences of scientists and academics):

I’ll start with my own blog, The Thoughtful Animal, which covers animal behavior and cognition and the evolution of the mind. Of course there’s the occasional music video or picture of my dog, and there’s some musing on the craft of science blogging, but it’s still more “content” and less “fluff.”

How about Aardvarchaeology? Here’s a link to some of the best posts from this blog.

Aetiology discusses diseases and epidemiology.

Class: M writes about climate change.

Developing Intelligence, which has recently come back to life, writes about cognitive psychology.

Want some accessible writing about physics? There’s Dot Physics and Uncertain Principles. For astronomy (and awesome pictures), you can’t beat Starts With A Bang.

For neuroscience, there’s Neurotopia and Neurophilosophy.

During the Eyjafjallajokull eruption several months ago, the Eruptions blog was THE place to go. Of course, it continues to feature awesome writing about geology, tectonics, volcanoes… that sort of thing.

If you want to learn about synthetic biology, which has been all over the news lately thanks to the Venter Institute, Oscillator is among the best.

Lately, I’ve been enjoying Genetic Future, Tetrapod Zoology, and Guilty Planet, as well.

Observations of a Nerd is, well, just awesome.

There’s lots more, of course. And even more awesome science blogs outside of this particular network.

Oh, and I should mention that while I don’t have the time to read every post at Pharyngula, I do read all of the “purely science” posts in Google Reader, by subscribing to the “science” category: http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/science/

Comments

  1. #1 razib
    July 30, 2010

    very sloppy column. hope it gets eviscerated. you can mistake the amount of science focused blogs on scienceblogs if your research consists of poking around the front page for five minutes or looking at the posts with most comments and such. oh, and i really hate the overuse of the term “bigotry.” though that’s a more general objection of mine with a lot of the contemporary american “discourse.”

  2. #2 Jennifer Ouellette
    July 30, 2010

    Left out Built on Facts. :)

  3. #3 Jason G. Goldman
    July 30, 2010

    Yes, please add more in the comments. I didn’t include every one, clearly.

  4. #4 Simon
    July 30, 2010

    So after complaining about the uselessness of science blogs, she recommends WattsUpWithThat… Clearly it’s science Virginia Hefferman dislikes, not science blogs.

  5. #5 AmoebaMike
    July 30, 2010

    Like the blogosphere as a whole, there’s plenty of unrelated content on sciblogs. But there’s also a lot of science.

    In fact, there’s a lot of science here that isn’t really lay-person accessible.

    There are inflammatory posts/people just as there are at Fox on the right and HuffPo on the left. But, if you come here looking for science you can find it.

    It’s also worth noting that frequency of posts helps with SEO and readership depends on being found. Scibloggers don’t have enough time to write three 1500+ word posts a day. 1 long post and 2 short quips about a video or a link to another’s blog is not 3 quality science posts, but it is “good blogging.”

  6. #6 razib
    July 30, 2010

    Clearly it’s science Virginia Hefferman dislikes, not science blogs.

    didn’t she make a dig at the anti-vacc people? this, at a time when anti-vacc is probably going to result in serious public health problems (and already has in a few small “progressive” communities).

  7. #7 razib
    July 30, 2010

    someone should just send her a link to the scienceblogs select feed address. that’s all she needed.

  8. #8 Jason G. Goldman
    July 30, 2010

    Oh yes, the select feed is another great way to limit yourself to the science.

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    July 30, 2010

    My two cents:

    And lets avoid falling into the fallacy that a blog that puts out a good number of short political pieces or informational announcements per week (as I do) does not also put out as many or more science blogs per unit time (as I usually do). Absolute numbers actually count. The proportional differences between bloggers is style, not how much science blogging they do.

    Also, I would suggest that people who are not really thinking about this (or about what science is, or who just don’t know) may be confused in another way. For instance, I was asked to Sb in part because of my OpenSource and tech blogging. So, to not count my posts on bash or perl or Linux etc. would be highly selective or inappropriate. And, some of us are in fields such as anthropology, psychology, etc. which may simply not be spotted as science by others because there are no chemicals bubbling in the beakers.

    Clearly the skepticism based blogging is science blogging 90 percent of the time.

    One could argue that the atheism blogging is not. Fine. It’s political.

    But, if being political means it does not count, then suddenly blogging about a science conversation during the last election is “not appropriate” for a science blog because it is political. And other things are also political and thus “don’t count.” So, we end up having, really, to put the politics back in.

    A career related blog is a science blog if it is about science careers (put DrugMonkey and Isis back in). Science education is under threat by creationists. Thoughts from Kansas, a lot of my blogging, a lot of PZ’s, others, goes back into the mix and counts as well. It will turn out that there is a find line between one person’s science-valid politics and another person’s “it’s only politics” labels. The blogosphere is not a place where we should be drawing those fine lines.

    So, it turns out that it is ALL science blogging, dagnabit!

    Get off my lawn!!!

  10. #10 Jason G. Goldman
    July 30, 2010

    Greg: I agree with most of what you say. I think all the blogs that are on Sb right now are appropriate and are to be considered science blogs. Science is not Latin words and equations and funny symbols, science is a way of thinking about and engaging with the world.

    I was of course only including a handful of blogs above off the top of my head, perhaps with a bias towards trying to include many of the lesser-trafficked blogs – nobody should read into anything about which blogs I did or did not include.

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    July 30, 2010

    Jason, yes, it is clear you were merely sampling. I was just taking advantage of an opportunity to spew out an often needed polemic about what a science blog is.

    The column in question is, of course, nothing more than the kind of trolling we get all the time but dressed up.

  12. #12 MJ
    July 30, 2010

    Hrm, I think Jason backed down too quick. I thought his argument was: “let’s grant the Heffernans of the world their silly views of what constitutes science-blogging; let’s assume every single one of the kinds of blogging Laden defends as science-blogging are not science-blogging at all; it’s nevertheless STILL true that scienceblogs is chock full of science-blogging. So Heffernan’s claims are not just false (as Laden claims), her claims are superfalse (in the technical sense, see: supervaluationism, vagueness).”

  13. #13 Jason G. Goldman
    July 30, 2010

    Oh, I didn’t back down – or mean to back down – just wanted to be clear what the idea was, here. I grabbed a pseudo-random handful of blogs that can clearly be labeled as science-y by those who have that sort of narrow view. But needed to clarify that this was not *my* understanding of what qualifies as a science blog.

  14. #14 razib
    July 30, 2010

    let’s keep it real. heffernan’s piece would be pathetic if it was a blog entry it’s so thin on heft. that’s the ultimate issue we can agree on it. there are so many holes/straw-men that we can pick & choose.

  15. #15 Isis the Scientist
    July 31, 2010

    As much as I hate to agree with him about anything, I agree with Greg. I think we need to be careful not to be apologists for ScienceBlogs. I don’t consider myself a science journalist, but I still very much write a scienceblog.

    For example, you might not read as much physiology daily on my blog as you’d care to, but who did you turn to when you needed to know if it was ok to wear jeans to a scientific meeting? Thus, I’d say that even though I don’t write about as many papers as folks might like, I still write content that is important in the conduct of science.

  16. #16 Jason G. Goldman
    July 31, 2010

    Right. Like I said above, the idea was: even if you’re going to take a narrow view of what constitutes science blogging, to say there’s no science on scienceblogs is false.

  17. #17 Marion Delgado
    August 2, 2010

    Three things:

    1. Very well said. The no science on science blogs really irked me.

    2. I filter pharyngula passively (you’re a baleen whale, I’m a sponge) by reading panda’s thumb.

    3. right now, it’s going over her head. Tell her thomas friedman believes in global warming and she’ll never mention Wattsupwiththat again.

  18. #18 IanW
    August 2, 2010

    Jason -

    I see a lot of anecdote in this blog you wrote here. I see no actual science. That’s one of the problems with science blogs: those who would rightly chide the creationists and pseudo-scientists for having no science about them evidently see no problem in making bold declarations which have no scientific, objective, or even statistical support for these generalizations.

    We know there’s a problem because many of those bloggers who used to be here and who determinedly blogged science – people like Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, Razib, Brian Switek, are no longer here blogging anything.

    Yes, isn’t it easy to point out great blogs like Starts With a Bang”, which blog mostly science? But how does this make your point any better than a creationist who, when confronted with the obvious fact that creationists do no science in support of their creationist position, they point to a couple of creationists who have scientific academic qualifcations and then posture as though that has fully refuted the charge?

    The fact that you have found (or have put) yourself in the position of having to blog anecdotal claims about who blogs science is really an admission that you have (at least as yet) no scientific answer to this charge.

    Now you may be right, I may be crazy… oh, wait, that’s Billy Joel. Let me start this over…

    You may be correct in your contention that science blogs still does blog primarily science, but I’m not willing to adopt that conclusion based on flimsy anecdote, especially when it conflicts with my own perception. And yes, perception is important because humans are beings of perception, rightly or wrongly. Without some supportive objective evidence, I have no means to tell whether I should agree with you or not in yoru contention.

    If you were doing the science you would have, for example, prsented us with a survey of blogs over a fixed period – a month now compared with a month from two years ago, say, or a six month continuous period, and identified the topic of the blog (or perhaps how the blogger themselves has identified it by tagging), and determined what proportion of those individual blogs were actually primarily about science and what was nothing more than whatever else the blogger had chosen to blog.

    That would have been the scientific approach.

    My personal perception (as long as we’re in our anecdotage here) is that there is less science being blogged, and I come to this conclusion based, in part, on three of my favorite blogs, “Pharyngula” and “Scientist Interrupted…”, and “Zuska…”.

    I used to read those blogs on a regular basis. In fact, Pharyngula was what introduced me to science blogs when it moved here. But I no longer read those blogs because they so rarely blog science any more and two of the three have become so shrill that they hurt my ears and offer me no useful education.

    Now bloggers are entitled to blog about whatever they wish. I have no argument with that. What concerns me is why a blogger would want to be on science blogs if they are not interested in blogging a significant amount of science?

    Unless the content of their blog is primarily scientific, I have to ask why they’re at science blogs at all as opposed to being in some general blog environment which doesn’t promote itself as having a primary focus in science?

    I think these are valid questions and I have yet to see valid supported answers.

  19. #19 DrBubbles
    August 2, 2010

    @IanW — it seems to me you’re using a pretty narrow definition of “science,” which I suppose you’re entitled to do; but it doesn’t make anyone else wrong who uses a broader definition.

  20. #20 casey rentz
    August 2, 2010

    Scienceblogs are not aggregated by style, they are aggregated by subject matter–namely science. As you point out, Jason, there are many different personalities in this community and many different ways of defnining science (and the relationship of science to ‘culture.’) It’s a shame that Ms. Heffernan has such tunnel vision.

  21. #21 bsci
    August 2, 2010

    Are you complaining that you’d prefer to see an analysis of number of posts on blogs containing science content their proportions to other blogs. The trouble with constantly demanding stuff like this is that blogging is circular and this isn’t the first time this argument has happened. As it turns out, someone has already done the type of analysis you requested. See:
    http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2008/05/how_much_science_does_a_scienc.php

    As you can see, Pharyngula actually has more science posts than some of the “serious” science blogs. He just happens to post a lot of other junk too. If you think Pharyngula has decrease his science content, feel free to repeat the analysis for last February. I don’t read him so I don’t know the changes, but the general argument still rings true on the many blogs I do read.

  22. #22 IanW
    August 3, 2010

    @DrBubbles: Since I didn’t define science in my comment, your comment is irrelevant. And no, my definition of science for these purposes, were I to make one, would not be coincidental with “peer-reviewed blogging”.

    @GregLaden: I made no suggestion that science blogs ought to do any sort of regular survey of how much science is in these blogs, nor was I talking about 2008, although the 2008 survey might offer a good point for a comparison with today. This would be far more useful than simply learning what was going on in science blogs two years ago. 2008 is antiquity on the Internet.

    The focus needs to be on now, not 2008, and there are two issues:
    1. What is actually happening.
    and
    2. What is perceived to be happening.

    The second is far more dangerous to science blogging than is the first, and it’s obvious that this perception is already in play, otherwise from whence the impetus for Jason to blog on this topic?

    The first response to this perception has to address whether it’s based in reality or whether it’s just idle anecdote. I see only hypocrisy in a science blog bypassing the scientific approach and attempting to refute anecdote with alternative anecdote.

    If there’s no basis to these charges, then simply identifying and publicizing that lack of foundation is not only sufficient, it would be a highly effective rebuttal to Virginia Heffernan’s misperception.

    If what she wrote turns out not to be misperception, then sticking heads in sand will not correct that fault. That reality, if it is such, needs to be addressed, and it cannot be adequately addressed by a chant of “no it isn’t” which is really all that anecdotal claims are. That way lies extinction, or worse, irrelevance.

    Neither of these potential problems can be refuted by saying, “Well back in 2008, we…”. Thats a joke, not a solution.

    @bsci – I’m not sure to what you refer when you say Pharyngula “…has more science posts…”. Are you referring to the same data to which Greg refers? If so, that’s just moving the goal posts; it tells us only that PZ had more science posts in 2008. It doesn’t tell us what’s happing today. Is Virginia Heffernan addressing what she perceives to be issues in 2008? I don’t think so.