Virginia Heffernan Is Our Target Audience

There's a great post at NeuroDojo on the Heffernan business this weekend, and what the take-away ought to be:

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.

More like this

I think the goal of ScienceBlogs if to communicate science. I understand many people's discomfort with Pharyngula, although I like PZ, but I still have a hard time with believing that she found vitriol on GrrlScientist's blog. Her column just seemed very, very strange to me.

By Isis the Scientist (not verified) on 03 Aug 2010 #permalink

Actually, you can certainly have a column for the Times and be an idiot. Tom Friedman comes to mind. David Brooks is pretty dumb, too.

Heffernan isn't an idiot. But she's exceedingly lazy. She writes a column each week which are her reactions to various websites or screen technologies, usually pretty meaningless ones like this bizarre paean to J Crew (…). She hardly ever interviews anyone because she's extremely uninterested in anyone's opinion besides her own or her friends (…). Or because actually being a journalist requires a lot of work.

This week, Virginia's sloppiness was exposed. She got caught impugning a whole class of blogs by selectively taking a few quotes and citing them out of context.

Don't change what you're doing in order to win Virginia over. It won't make a difference - she just hears what she wants to hear.

Never having heard of climate denialism is kind of like saying you've never heard of American Idol. You may have never watched a single episode, but I doubt there are more than a few thousand people in the nation who truly have never heard of it. A NYT columnist won't be in that group.

I could have believed being duped by Watts's site, but she lost all credible excuses by claiming she had never heard about the climate debate.

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?

She might have tried to sample a bigger number of science blogs before making sweeping judgements. On the subject of climate, how about Class M? And before that, Island of Doubt? Are they so unbearably "vitriolic" too? Or is the simple proximity to PZ Myers enough to make her blind to their arguments? If so, I'm sorry, but your purported "target audience" is a tad thick. And bigoted. Maybe even more than your dog, who at least listens to the sound of physics...

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.

According to your reasoning, she was turned off by you too, since you are (to her eyes) guilty by association. Oops.

I dunno, I still think that "half stupid" is being generous. The quote mining and the "peak oil" non-sequitur lead me to believe she had an agenda all along. If that agenda was attention, then successful troll is successful.

I couldnt care less about people like Heffernan, as I do not believe she wrote that article in good faith, in any capacity.

She purposefully and maliciously quote-mined in order to make a political 'point'-- and to do so she had to quote-mine Denialism blog, a blog that hasnt really been active in years. To find quotes from them and use them as a 'point' took a very special kind of intellectual laziness and maliciousness.

I write for people who want to learn something neat about viruses. Not random dingbats who dont give a crap.

How the hell did you ever get tenure? Don't you understand that academics write for OTHER academics, and fuck those of us who aren't one of you.

For the sarcasm impaired, that was. Just in case you missed it.

ERV has is nailed. There is way too much evidence that her piece was NOT a random look at science blogs. She had an agenda, and she carefully researched and crafted a piece to put that forth.

Never having heard of climate denialism is kind of like saying you've never heard of American Idol.

No, it's not.
I think part of the problem here is that people vastly overestimate the importance and knowledge of science blogs and specific issues discussed on them. Yes, there's a book called Denialism, but it's not exactly a cultural phenomenon (maybe if he had called it The Girl Who Cried "Denialism" or some such...). It's entirely possible for people to be unfamiliar with the term, which is something of a term of art, and it's not at all surprising that someone with no particular involvement in the subject would be unfamiliar with the general denialist program.

It's easy to forget just how little contact the general public-- even well-educated members of the general public who write for prominent newspapers-- have with science and science policy issues. The details of the debate are just not on most people's radar.

How the hell did you ever get tenure? Don't you understand that academics write for OTHER academics, and fuck those of us who aren't one of you.

That's why my next book will be written entirely in Latin, so I do not have to worry about being baited by little Smatterers in Mathematicks.

It's plausible for an educated person to not know the term "denialist". It shouldn't be plausible for an educated person not to know (a) that global warming is happening because of human activity and (b) that there are major corporate interests dead-set on preventing any action on global warming. It shouldn't be reasonable for a person to read a blog like Watts's and not pause to think about what agenda they might have. But, in the actual, real world, it is plausible that these things happen, and I put most of the blame on the mainstream media for publishing vast quantities of deceptive and confusing reports. In the real world, it is possible for someone to be educated and to keep up with the NYTimes and other major news sources and be so massively misled that they can get taken in, at least temporarily, by someone like Watts.

A more responsible journalist have figured out Watts's ideological bias. But I don't think we should be surprised by Heffernan's response, or think that she is unrepresentative of educated people as a whole.

I wonder if Heffernan is trying to garner publicity so that her name will be recognized when her book The Pleasures of the Internet is published in 2011.

See her bio which says (in part):

She treats the Internet not merely as a new technology or as a business tool, but as a cultural object -- a collaborative work of art that has "its own rules, conventions, implications."

I think you are correct if you assume she is the target you might need to aim for, but you are forgetting a few things. First of all she has an education in literature, where the most important thing you learn is not about the accuracy of a story. Fact checking in journalism mostly covers that what is written is an accurate representation of what has been written elsewhere, and mostly about what people really have said. (So if a journalist writes "in xxx magazine claimed acupuncture was shown to be effective" that may very well be a true statement). Also journalism has the -for science- odd habit of always wanting 2 sides to a story, even if one side is ludicrous in the eyes of scientists.

Furthermore you have to realise that for people like Ms Hefferman a formula like f=m*a may already be boring and incomprehensible. Listening to Deepak Chopra telling nice stories about "quantum physics" and reincarnation is eminently more palatable. Neil deGrasse Tyson is an example on the science side: what he has -also- going for him is that he is just such a good storyteller.

But if it is all about the quality of the story, how do you teach people critical thinking? That is the problem.

Methinks Chad is missing the point. What irritated many of us about Heffernan's story was not that she was ignorant. It was that she was lazy and deceptive. She superficially perused a few blogs here and then even quote-mined GrrlScientist in a manner that was very easy to demonstrate unequivocally just by looking at her original post--except that Heffernan didn't bother to include a link to the offending posts that pissed her off.

Heffernan can't really be faulted for the absence of links in her original story, as that seems to be NYT house style. Their blogs barely manage to provide links to things; I've long since stopped hoping for them in print stories.

As for the argument that her approach to the site was really superficial, my reaction is "Welcome to the Internet." Most blog-surfing people are incredibly superficial-- you almost have to be in order to deal with the incredible torrent of stuff the blogosphere throws at you. Most people make snap judgments about the worth of blogs or collections of blogs all the time-- when I get an announcement of a new blog joining ScienceBlogs, or starting up somewhere else, I'll go there and look at a few posts. If there's nothing there on the very first visit that catches my interest, I'm exceedingly unlikely to look again, unless somebody else I read regularly points to something later on. I've got more stuff in my RSS reader than I can keep up with as it is, and I don't need more.

Her drive-by approach to the site is annoying in that it misses a lot, but it's also reasonably representative of the way random people coming to a site for the first time behave. They look at a few things, and make a quick decision about a site based on very limited information. That's pretty much the modus operandi of the idle blog-reader, and thus a sensible way for her to do her web column.

(Also, she's writing a column for the magazine, not an investigative report. If you look at her past columns, they're all like this.)

It's also interesting that people are simultaneously calling her approach really shallow and superficial, while also complaining that she's done extensive quote-mining to find posts that really aren't representative. Those don't really seem compatible to me-- her selection of posts and sources is certainly odd, but I don't think she worked very hard to find them. Most likely, they were the result of some relatively simple search, possibly of stories flagged for the New York Times ScienceBlogs widget (she might have internal access to that).

Her choice of specific posts was odd, but I don't think that invalidates the general conclusion, mostly because it fits pretty well with my own experience. I dropped first the combined SB feed and then the Select feed from my RSS subscriptions because of exactly this sort of tone issue. There are a large number of ScienceBlogs blogs that I find really wearying in their negativity, and I don't think it would take a huge amount of effort to find roughly equivalent quotes from a handful of more current sources.

It's conceivable, I suppose, that she has some sort of political agenda, but I'm not sure what or why. ScienceBlogs isn't exactly an existential threat for the New York Times, even in the most extravagant triumphalist blogger fantasy, and if she has a strong right-wing anti-science political agenda it's not obvious to me. Her most notorious previous act was a story linking Ron Paul to white supremacists, which was later retracted. That doesn't seem like a right-wing operative to me, unless it's some deep-cover project to discredit the Times from within.


I don't mean to be obnoxious, but I don't think it's reasonable for someone to pick a single quote (taken out of context, no less) from a blog called Denialism blog, and then claim you don't know about the whole denialism problem. That's what the blog was about--and it had FAQs and explanations all over the place.

Mike - maybe she didn't know that denialism referred to climate change denialism?

I do think her perusal of scienceblogs was too superficial. It's one thing to browse blogs and decide whether you like them on the basis of one or two posts - it's another thing to write an article criticizing a set of blogs on the basis of having read one or two posts on one or two of many blogs

"That's why my next book will be written entirely in Latin, so I do not have to worry about being baited by little Smatterers in Mathematicks."


This reminds me of a conversation I had with a well-educated religious friend who has a non-science background but loves shows like "Nova."

She mentioned she had visited Science Blogs and I asked her what she thought of it. She shrugged, said she didn't care for the tone of the blogs she had visited and said she'd rather just watch the Discovery Channel when she wanted to learn more about science.

I think hers could be described as a "drive-by" approach; she's also an intelligent, busy non-scientist interested in science. Some of Heffernan's opinions sounded like my friend's.

And I do think it's unrealistic to expect a casual visitor, someone like my friend, will invest hours digging deeply into Science Blogs to see if it's a source of information they trust, or will bother to return to.

When it comes to media outlets most of us decide fairly quickly if we want to see more.

You know, I don't think it's wrong to ask what to do about people like Heffernan. Basically she's representative of a problem and complaining about it won't necessarily fix the problem. That being said, you have to have a realistic view of the problem and it may be more than 'PZ isn't conciliatory enough'. The quote mining, the "peak-oil religion baiting' crap, the nod to Watts Up; I don't buy the babe-in-the-woods explanation. Heffernan isn't a part of the revolutionary right like Beck and Rand Paul, but she may easily fit into the Status Quo right, the 'center-right' establishment. Defending the establishment becomes central to those who are part of it and the Times certainly counts.

She wrote a hit piece because a couple people offended her sensibilities. I caught a whiff of longstanding anti-intellectualism off it. I get the impression that in her head, scientists are quiet nerds who know their place. They might build her a car with better gas mileage but can't actually challenge her preconceptions and biases, that might make her uncomfortable.

Again, I think it's good to discuss how you reach people like her, but part of that discussion should be how you change the attitude that 'tone' is a deciding factor. I think you reserve the right to criticize PZ or whomever without resorting to misrepresentation and demonization. You say, "He says this and I say that but we're both part of the community and you don't get kicked out for style on your own blog." At least to me, that is part of the vibrancy of ScienceBlogs.

I'm torn between thinking that Chad is right in some measure and thinking that Heffernan's piece was *so* stupid that any grain of truth in it had to come accidentally. Because Heffernan doesn't seem to grasp her own field all that clearly either, given the way she uses the term "deconstruction." I'm inclined to just think, good schools or no, whatever that has to do with it, she's just not one of the brighter stars in the western sky.

I think Chad's right that science blogs as a whole comes across in a particular way which is offputting to a lot of people. I, for example, don't take the "religion-baiting peak-oil" bit as a dig, actually, I think it was a genuine (stupid, but genuine) reaction to several things that she found alien and perhaps alienating, which she then conflated, as bizarre and ignorant a conflation as that is. So in that sense I think Chad's right - she's probably a pretty good measure of how science blogs comes across to cursory approach - you skim a few blogs and themes emerge.

But then again - most blogs fall in the category of Mencken's (I think) "For people who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing that they will like." Heffernan may be *a* possible target audience, but I think you are wrong that she's *the* target audience - it would be nice to think that all of us are always talking to all of the people all of the time, but that's simply not true, and it isn't necessarily the case that blogs work best when they have that goal.


I really liked this post. To me the stakes are much higher than Ms. Heffernan. Ignorance on the part of people in the media - people in such influential spots as Ms. Heffernan - gives people in real positions of power an excuse to just ignore science for their own ends.

I really wish this piece from the Times-Picayune's Bob Marshall got more attention.…

But if science bloggers walk away now, if they tell the "ignorant masses" that they sleep on burning mounds of stupid and eat psycho-babble for breakfast, those ignorant masses will continue to make decisions that further marginalize scientists and science itself. Engagement is the only option in my mind.


Which is to say: Her complaint that people who know what they're talking about just aren't nice enough when they debunk the antifactual idiocy she prefers to hear is, entirely, the classic definition of the tone argument.

Your illusions about the quality of the NYT staff are entirely unwarranted, because this person is an idiot, and her presence at NYT proves that yes, you CAN be a "total imbecile" (to use your term) and get a regular column there, because she is and she has one.

She is, in many ways, the target audience for How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, and this blog as well.

How about sending her a copy of your book, and see how she responds?

'Not a stupid person' is a relative thing, as is 'stupid'.

For instance, I think Virginia Heffernan is 'stupid'. I think George Will is 'stupid'. Do they have regular columns? Yes. How about people with TV shows on certain channels? Do you think they're stupid?

By Katharine (not verified) on 04 Aug 2010 #permalink

Your positive, pragmatic recommendations are refreshing. The very fact that they are refreshing says something about the scienceblogs sphere.